STORIES and MORE by JACK
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My generation was raised in a world of clear rights and wrongs, where common sense still umpired what was true and what was false. We held fast to the simple truth that if it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck, it probably isn’t a giraffe. Our movie heroes were cowboys in “winner takes all” combat with merciless bad guys, and our soldiers and sailors were prepared to die for their country fighting evil enemies. Our churches had not yet developed amnesia about sin and damnation, and our politics had not succumbed to putting partisan power ahead of loyalty to America. Political correctness would have only been a bad joke back in those ingenuous times, and moral relativism an outrage.
No free lunches and anything of value bore a price tag were aphorisms everyone understood and lived by in the first half of the twentieth century. That folks would mind their own business and be responsible for their own lives was not seen as unfair or discriminatory, but virtuous. Self-reliance had not yet become a concept we sneered at, and children were children, not little adults. Being judgmental was not only a prerogative, but a responsibility for thinking people.
Government had not yet assumed the role of engineering every aspect of our lives. Families, not local welfare offices, were where we turned when life became desperate. Our laws protected crime victims more than criminals, and judges didn’t usurp the role of legislators. Sexuality was contained within the disciplines of Judeo-Christian traditions, and secular humanism was not popular enough to openly disparage Christianity. Legislation didn’t assume to tell us how to think, or what we should consume, and taxation wasn’t the hammer used by government to force upon us elitist dictates of how we should behave.
But all of that was yesterday, and although a persuasive case can be made that we were far from being a perfect society, I believe much of what we threw overboard from those simpler days, is being rediscovered today. A comeback of some of our traditions is a good sign. They were celebrated in Tom Brokaw’s book, and we saw it in the brave heroics of young men and women that transfigured America on Sept 11. It peeks out through the continuing popularity of “dubya”, and in the way many Americans reject the shameful legacy of the Clinton years. I hope these trends are not just passing fashions, and we continue on this path. this return to a value system return so our traditional backbone can be rehabilitated to deal with the dangers and terrors of the depraved New World staring us in the face.
May 23, 2002
A TRIP BACK HOME
I begin this fantasy journey here in North Carolina, separated from Kearny, New Jersey, by a half-century in time and many other wonderful experiences that have filled my life since growing up on Rose Street in the 1940s. Hopefully, my memory will be adequate and faithful to those happy days, although I must confess to beginning with a pair of rose tinted specks perched on the end of my old nose. I also admit to being proud of being a kid from Kearny with an unabashed bias for the common-sense culture that molded my life.
My trip back home revisits a time when only men worked on road construction crews and only women and female impersonators, wore earrings. Tatoos were seen on the arms of sailors, not the genital regions of young women. Self-reliant cowboys who were our movie heroes always kicked the bad-guys butt. No free lunches was an aphorism everyone understood and lived by. The Bishops of the Church had not yet developed amnesia about sin, and our politics had not yet succumbed to putting partisan advantage ahead of loyalty to country. Political Correctness would have only been a bad joke and moral relativism an insult to common sense. Good and evil were still the conflicting realities of human existence, not merely fuzzy intellectual abstractions.
The War was ravaging Europe and Asia, but our childhood escaped having to look its enormity in the face. Except for the small sacrifices required by the War effort, we were exempted from the hardships suffered by kids in the battle zones. Insulated from these horrors, our lives were very nearly normal but we took none of our good fortune for granted. We were truly grateful, and I think it served to make us the first generation of Americans to appreciate how small the world really is.
Rose Street is a tiny thread on the colossal spiderweb of alleys, streets, avenues, and highways that connects Hudson County, New Jersey to the outside world. It is a four block, half mile strand on the smaller mesh of roads of my hometown, Kearny, one of Hudson Countys many aluminum sided, working class communities. Neighborhoods where no nonsense, hard working Americans still celebrate First Communions, play the lottery, and proudly display the Stars & Stripes.
Lying west of Manhattan and the Hudson River, Hudson County stretches from Jersey City and Hoboken across mucky swamps, euphemistically known as The Meadows, to the sad failed city of Newark. Once upon a time, The Meadows was part of natures marshy wetlands, a vast nursery for littoral wildlife. But after many years of industrial dumping, it survives only as an offense to the eye and nose. Man sized punk weeds mock the pollution by prospering in this oily, rubbish filled ooze. Kearny stands on the hilly western edge of this unlovely scene, guarding the Passaic River entrances to Newark, and its upscale satellite villages. This is fly-over country for the pigeon that could wing it from Central Park in Manhattan to St. Cecelias belfry on Kearny Avenue in twenty minutes.
As urban streets go, Rose Street is quite small. Its four blocks stretches east and west, at the south edge of town, lying between Kearny Avenue and Belgrove Drive. In days already forgotten when I was a boy, it was the site of the mansion of Civil War hero, General Philip Kearny. But the Kearny Castle, as it was known, was demolished long before I was born in the ghost of its shadow, at 12 Rose Street in 1933.
Even after almost 70 years, it surprises me how little the appearance of Rose Street has changed. Except for empty lots that are no longer empty, the vista looking down the Street from my old house looks much like it did when we gathered on its porches of a warm summer night, or played ring-a-leevio in its back-yard hiding places, sixty years ago. When we fished errant balls from acrid smelling street sewers with punctured soup cans on a string, or put galvanized pails filled with coal-ash out on the curb for collection. The well kept modest houses may obscure the migration of the Rose Street folks of my day, but it flatters the ethnically different newcomers who have carried on the middle class tradition of pride in self and property. Would this were the fate of all changing urban neighborhoods.
Back in 1945, when Johnny Weissmuller was starring in Tarzan and the Amazons. and the toy favorite, Slinky, was first sold at Bambergers department store, Rose Street was home to approximately 50 families. They lived in 35 multi family and single family homes, most of which were built in the early years of the 20th century. Our house sat on the western edge of Rose Street, opposite the two family house lived in by Mr. & Mrs. Charles Sinon, and their tenants, the Hughes family that included my chum, Johnny, his older sister, and parents who came from Scotland. Mr. Sinon was a one-eyed man who drove a truck that delivered coal for our furnaces in the winter, and blocks of ice to cool our ice boxes in the summer.
In our 3 family house were Marcy and Joe Ward on the top floor, my family on the second floor, and the Heslips from Irelands Protestant Ulster County on the first floor. Betty and Papa Heslip, and their grown daughter Abigail, were like an extension of my own family, and I still hold their memory dear in my heart. Religious differences didnt foul the love and affection that we shared with these good people. Further down the street lived the Walters family, Jimmy Hanna and his parents, the Taylors, my Aunt Annie and Uncle Hennie Fisher and my cousins George, Harry, and Dorothy. Other folks too numerous to mention filled out our neighborhood.
Next door, in a house the mirror image of ours lived my boyhood pal, Arnold Evans, with his dad and stepmother. His birth mother had died in her twenties when Arnold was very young. Like us, their house was home to two other families on the upstairs floors. He and I were K 12th grade classmates and communicants at St. Cecelia RC church. Our attendance at public schools obliged us to be instructed in the Faith at Sunday schools, where we had our share of fun, but did little to distinguish ourselves as religious scholars.
I first met Arnold at the hedge that separated the tiny yards in the back of our houses. We were just past the toddler stage, trying to communicate over the shrubbery, which was difficult enough for two little boys as young as we were. But understanding was made all the more difficult because Arnold baby-talked in Polish, the language of his ancestors that his parents spoke at home. Their theory was Arnold should learn Polish first, so he would grow up bi-lingual. Unfortunately it was a failed experiment because Arnold does not remember his Polish, and my jabbering English over the hedge may have been partially to blame.
Our friendship was both collaborative and competitive, as was typical of young boys growing up in our times. On one hand we were buddies sharing dreams and aspirations about our future and on the other hand we were competitors for the approval of other kids, competitors in the classroom, and competitors on the ball field. We even shared our first girl kissing at a spin-the-bottle party on Johnson Avenue, and Ill bet this recollection will surprise Grandpa Arnie living out there in St. Louis! Another rite of passage took place during our late teens when Arnold and I furtively swigged our first taste of booze (anisette), giddily yukking it up in the darkness of the Swankeys front porch, like rogues in an Italian opera.
The Evans were not the only Rose Street family that spoke another language. At the Dahlquist flat, you might have heard Mr. Dahlquist scolding his son Karl in Swedish, or Mr. Nicolian talking on the phone in Armenian. Tony Blancos dad, a native of Spain, got his news from El Diario, and Marie DiRenzo made excuses for her mediocre report card to her mom in Sicilian accented Italian. Russian was the language of comfort for the Novacks, and Mrs. McClymonts Scottish burr was so thick, it might well have qualified as a foreign tongue. Rose Street kitchens today echo with the chatter of its newest residents, the Portuguese.
In a time that predated organized Little Leagues with rules, uniforms, schedules, and lots of adult meddling, we supplied our own fun and games. Fathers were not buddies to their kids, and mothers were homemakers, too busy to be frenzied soccer moms. Our games were of our choosing, improvised by our own rules, and determined by simple practicalities like what kind of ball was available. If it was a baseball, then that was what we played. Or, if it was a football (usually rolled up newspaper, bound with electricians tape) we played football. Maybe it was stickball, where all we needed was a rubber ball & broomstick handle. Or we might just go to the lawn at Washington school, and rassle The point is, our amusements were kids-only affairs. Shinny games as the Canadians call it, and I truly believe we were the better for it.
We also engaged in other boyish rituals invented by kids for kids. Like blurting out the word Hunkies when you wanted to claim a bite of a pals candy or cupcake. Or shouting First to see the lights go on, when you spotted the illumination of the street lights before anyone else. Invoking Hunkies may have got you a piece of a candy bar, but I dont recall what the reward was for being the first one to spot the turn-on of street lamps? And, of course, we all had to deal with the chip on the shoulder challenge. In this scenario one boy places a wood chip on his shoulder, or whatever small item might be handy, daring another to knock it off. Since adolescent machismo demanded the challenged kid to knock it off, the stage was set for the inevitable donnybrook that followed. Im a little red-faced when I recall how many times I got myself involved in chip-on-the-shoulder brawling, and embarrassed to admit that I enjoyed it.
We had no sense of being a gang in todays meaning of the word, but we did have a group identity. We saw ourselves as the Roses. Membership was very informal and included both neighborhood kids and kids that lived on other nearby streets. Like Bobby Rhoady from Grant Ave, Billy Gee from Alexander Ave, Billy Moore, Cliff Chippendale and Charlie Meechan from Highland Ave, Jimmy Connally from Paterson Street, and Jimmy Finn and Bill Kinney from Kearny Avenue.
Bill Kinney was doubtless the most loyal of the non-residents and even today he shares a passionate affection for the Street. Bill stands out as a kid who had few natural gifts as an athlete, but who worked very hard at becoming good by putting in lots of practice time and effort. I remember him dribbling his basketball, shooting endless shots at the hoop mounted on the telephone pole. Or he and Jimmy Finn batting and pitching stickball played against a strike zone chalked on a concrete wall at Washington Field.
On the other side of Kearny Ave, very near where Rose Street ended, began Duke Street. It ran to the eastern edge of town, and was only slightly longer than Rose Street. It was the home of our archrivals, the Dukes. We played them in every team sport we had equipment or facilities for. They were good guys and always gave us a good game. They also gave us a reason for being, since a team with no one to play against was kind of dopey. So our two team league, had ongoing competitions that look primitive compared to the highly organized world of todays kids. Our struggles on the ball field were well matched, but we never resorted to being hooligans. If they beat us, then good for them, and vice versa. With only one competitor, we had no choice but to stay friends! Later, when we all went to Kearny High School, we often were teammates on some very successful teams.
During the summer months the town of Kearny sponsored recreational activities at the Washington School playground and ball field adjacent to Rose Street. On sunny days Rip Collins supervised sandlot games and foot races for the amusement of neighborhood kids. On rainy days we played dominoes, chess and checkers under a tin roofed shed.
Rip was a Falstaff sized young man in his twenties who coached us with the zeal of a drill sergeant, addressing us only by our last names; something only an authority figure was entitled to do. He was reputed to have had major league potential as an athlete, until a tragic prep-school football accident required the amputation of his right leg. So he stiffly hobbled about on his wooden leg barking instructions on how we should throw the curve ball, bunt, or steal a base by studying the pitchers motion.
The fifties witnessed the cultural sea change brought about by the automobile. Before then the two-car family, superhighways, and the affluence to enjoy these luxuries simply didnt exist. On Rose Street I can remember only one family, the Evans, who owned two cars and neighbors who considered themselves lucky to own one car. Public transportation was the get-about option for the others. In our 3 family house, my Dad was the only car owner. Our tenants got to work, or wherever else they wanted to go by bus or commuter trains. The Public Service #38 and #39 buses could deliver you anywhere between Newark and North Arlington. The #102 traveled between Newark and Rutherford, and the #36 carried people to Newark from Kearny. Once in Newark, people could connect to public transportation going almost everywhere.
Life without an automobile limits getting about; however life without seductive chain stores and the roads to take you there makes not getting about more tolerable. And life with stores, churches, schools, barbers, dentists, repair shops, and restaurants within walking distance makes cars even less necessary to human happiness. So it was in the forties.
The woman driver was another factor in our less traveled generation. Few women had licenses, so transportation depended upon dear old dad, who was not as agreeable to being a chauffeur for kids as in 2002. Mother couldnt be a soccer mom because even if there was a family car available to her, she probably didnt know how to drive it.
With butchers, grocers, bakeries, and other mom & pop stores close by; Rose Street kids were built in delivery boys. Youngsters returning home lugging paper bags with groceries in their arms, and change in their pockets that they better not lose, were part of the landscape. I can remember how common it was to invite a buddy to come out and play, only to learn I cant, cause I gotta go to the store. Wanna come? And often I did go along for lack of something better to do. On one of these bread & milk missions I tagged along with Robert Walters, and returning from Less grocery store he filled me in on the physiology behind the birds & bees metaphor. It shocked the daylights out of me to learn that MY parents did THAT! So, filled with rage I took it out on the messenger and socked him! Poor Robert learned that knowing the facts of life wasnt always safe, and I learned that the truth can sometimes be very distressing.
In 1943 I had a serious run in with an automobile while roller-skating. The accident occurred when I skated down the Ianucci twins hidden driveway, on Paterson Street, directly into the path of a car that had no opportunity to stop. My carelessness resulted in multiple fractures of my left leg that could have caused permanent lameness. Fortunately the leg healed to normal function and I have had no lingering after effects. This story had a happy ending, but I mention it now to make another point.
In the current world, Im sure this kind of accident would have had a different consequence for the operator of the car. The driver would almost certainly be sued for all he is worth. But my parents had a different take on what was right and what was wrong. They concluded the driver had no chance to avoid hitting me, and my own recklessness was responsible for my injury. My folks also took into account that the poor fellow who hit me loaded me into his car and delivered me to the hospital. He had a family of his own, he was deeply distressed, and he had no insurance protection if he had to go to court. So, following their instincts rather than the advice of lawyers, they let the matter drop. This example of doing the right thing has remained with me, as one of my proudest recollections of how plain people can also be noble people. Can you imagine such magnanimity in 2002?
Contrasted with todays laid-back suburban lifestyle, I remember the working class adults of our old neighborhood as oddly formal. For example, parents almost always addressed other parents as Mr., or Mrs. Using familiar first names was simply not done. Rose Street adults also did very little visiting, and rarely partied in each others homes. That kind of intimacy was reserved for relatives and family gatherings. Economics certainly explains much of this, but I think that more than the lack of money, this kind of social distance was observed because of a mind-your-own-business ethic that looks quaintly outdated today. If one wanted to attend a Cocktail party, you took in a movie.
Cell phones keep parents and children in touch today, but low-tech hollering had to get the job done when we were kids. Summoning youngsters usually meant sending a sibling out to tell us, Mom said you gotta come home for dinner. Right now... Or, mom, in her house dress and apron, might come to the fence bordering the ball-field and holler like a banshee Jaaackkkie .Commme hommme Although most mothers had this talent, Mrs. Walters was the undisputed champ! She could bellow, Robbbert...Robbbert...Dinnnerrrr and be heard in the next county. We all dreaded her magna-decibel wail because Robert usually owned the ball, and it signaled the end of our game. An early lesson that all good things have to end.
Urging a friend to come out and play followed a similar technique. It meant going to a spot nearest the kitchen window and shouting Heyyy Billllaaayy... This was usually in the back yard where you had the best chance of being heard. Calling from the front was a waste of time since no one was ever there. And you never knocked on the door, or rang the doorbell... you always gave a holler.
Sunday mornings meant attending the 8:30 childrens mass at St. Cecelias. All but the last few pews in the church were reserved for the kids who attended the parochial school. Public school children were assigned these back of the bus seats. From where we sat we looked out over a sea of ears on fidgety shorthaired kids being kept on a tight leash by nuns. A granite-faced sister wearing the old style penguin habit anchored each aisle, and any commotion was quickly squelched by a discreet whack, or a stare that would freeze oil.
The priest began his sermon with a Good morning children... to which we would respond in chorus,Good morning, Father.., and from there he would go on to tell us how God would love us if we were good little boys and girls. But watch out, if we chose to be bad.
After mass we took Sunday school instruction in the ancient grammar school building behind the church. Under the stern tutelage of the nuns I rote learned my catechism, prayers, and understandings of ritual that have stuck with me all my life.
Mothers Day mass was particularly poignant, because on this special Sunday in May, children would wear lapel carnations honoring their mothers. If mom was still alive you wore a red carnation, but if you were her orphan, you wore a white carnation. I can still recall the melancholy sight of the occasional boy or girl pinned with a white flower, walking down the church aisle to receive Communion. Like the ominous black wreath hung on the door of a home where someone had recently died, carnations were a morbid tradition that Im glad weve put behind us. Not everything that came out of the good old days was good.
Following mass and Sunday school, I had to hurry home to take my bi-monthly accordion lesson from Mr.McGlade. An immigrant from Scotland, Mr. McGlade was indeed a character. He wore a derby and black coat all year round, and had a dour personality to match his dour clothes. His habit was to closet me in the front room, fog the room with smoke from Camel cigarettes, and tutor my reluctant fingers to play a halting rendition of Let Me Call You Sweetheart on a rented accordion. This went on for a full hour, twice each month... He was an inexpensive teacher, even for those days, charging my parents fifty cents for his services. Part of this was explained by the fact that Mr. McGlade only knew how to play the piano side of my instrument, but hadnt a clue about the left, or bass, side of the squeeze box. And so I began my musical career as a one-handed accordionist. Two sided skills would have to wait for Mr. Milano, my next music teacher. Although Mr. Milano proved to be my most competent instructor of accordion and piano, Mr. McGlade will always remain my most eccentric.
I should explain that girls dont get much mention in this remembrance because by demographic coincidence our neighborhood comprised of mostly boys. I can remember only three girls who were contemporaries, Dorothy Fisher, Marie DiRenzo, and Betty Taylor. The others were either too young, or too old to share in our sports and games.
At about the time I began 7th grade, the capitalist bug bit me, making me itchy to earn money. Not just what might be paid for doing chores, or running errands. That was kid stuff. I hankered for a real job that paid real money. So, I pleaded with my folks to let me get a box and shine shoes, like my enterprising cousin Johnny Hockey. Mom wouldnt hear of it. She and Dad thought 12-year-old peddling shoeshines in taverns and on the street was demeaning to our family, and made it clear that this was out of the question. Although my parents were not opposed to a part time job, I would have to come up with a better idea; one that wouldnt interfere with my schooling or accordion lessons. Louis Bodnar, our milkman solved my problem.
He agreed to hire me to collect weekly milk bills. So, on Saturday mornings I reported to his Terrace Dairy ice-house located across the street from his home/office on Devon Terrace, and off we went in his model T Ford coupe. Louie drove while I rode in the passenger seat of the old tin lizzy, or stood on the running board, hanging rakishly on to the doorframe. To cover our collection routes faster, Lou had the door of the Ford removed making it easier for me to jump in and out. With fresh young legs I would scoot through alleys, and up tenement stairs to knock on kitchen doors, and holler in a voice still stuck in the shrillness of adolescence, Milkmaan!
My job involved collecting $1.19 for one weeks delivery of milk; two quarts delivered to the doorstep every other day of milk, for 17cents a quart. I quickly got wise to the magic of words like Maam and Sir and how they lubricated generous tips. So, whenever an aproned haus-frau handed me a shiny quarter, I made sure I left her smiling with a big, THANK YOU, Maam. See ya next week! Im sure my contrived boyish charm would have amazed my Mom, but I figured it was harmless if it made me 25c richer. One particular tip fondly remembered was a square of Mrs. McKinnons sugar dusted raisin filled pastry. This smiley plump lady owned the Scottish bakery on Kearny Avenue near the Regent theatre, and giving me one of her treats seemed to please her almost as much as I enjoyed eating it.
After all these years, Im still touched by the generosity of ordinary people who have little, but give much. Stereotyping may be out of fashion, but in my experience the good-heartedness of common folks is beyond dispute. My nostalgic nose also delights in remembering delicious; old country cooking smells like Polish pierogis (dumplings) and Italian bracioles (stuffed pot roasts) floating from spotless kitchens as I awaited payment at the back door.
The collection routes through the ethnic neighborhoods of Kearny, Harrison, North Arlington, and Down Neck Newark usually took all day, including a stop at one of those Jersey diners with menus so extensive you could squander an entire lunch break just reading them. In bad weather we might be out until well after dark, necessitating a second diner stop for hot coffee and a buttered roll.
At the end of our circuit we returned to the Bodnar kitchen where Mrs. Doris Tootie Bodnar would square my collection money with expected receipts, using a primitive hand cranked adding machine. Tootie was a tough, no nonsense lady, and I can still see her two-fingered hand cranking that noisy old manual calculator. Her missing three fingers were amputated as a result of a factory accident that happened when she was a young woman. If the expected and actual receipts matched, all was fine. If I was short it came out of my pay, which was three dollars plus tips. When Tootie finished her audit and ripped the tape from the calculator to read the bottom line, I was muttering a Hail Mary under my breath that it would balance. And, happily, it usually did.
Returning home at the end of the day, I was one pooped puppy, smelling of sour milk and Louies Sweet Caporal cigarettes. Going direct to my fathers secretary desk in the front room, I dumped out my hard-earned booty, feverishly counting the bills and coins as I entered their value in a ledger with the relish of a pint-sized J.P. Morgan. As the earnings column grew, I felt proud of being well on my way to becoming rich.
After a year I tired of the job and wanted to quit. The glamour of being independently wealthy having worn off, I realized that I missed sleeping late on Saturdays, and being free to play ball with my buddies. But this impulse didnt go down well with my parents and they made it clear that I owed it to Mr. Bodnar not to leave until he found a replacement for me.
So, reluctantly I stuck it out until I could talk Skeeter Leahy into succeeding me. Now Louie had his replacement, and my first job was behind me. Many other part time jobs followed this first exposure to hard work, but this was the one that put me on the path to manhood, and like a first kiss, thats worth remembering.
And so I honorably retired, a little richer and a lot wiser. Six years later this decision to do the right thing paid off, because Lou hired me back during my college days. I drove his trucks and managed his commercial routes affording me a chance to cover a big chunk of my Fairleigh Dickinson College tuition.
Home delivery vendors were common sights on Rose Street. Not only bottle-rattling milkmen trotting dairy products to the doorstep, but bakery and produce deliverymen as well. They came in boxy gas-powered vans, except for Mr. Philburn rumbling down the street in his horse drawn Alderney Dairy wagon. These vendors were familiar personalities, well known to parents and neighborhood kids alike. Our bread man was Johnny, the friendly Dugans Bakery man in his official brown uniform dropping off fresh bread and cakes.
On weekends, a produce peddlers truck loaded with vegetables and fruit tempted the ladies of Rose Street out to the curb to buy dinner veggies from baskets mounted on the sides of his vehicle, each basket marked as to pricewhich was frequently haggled over. The man from Lambrechts in the forties brought crocked butter and eggs for the folks that could afford them. But whatever their products, vendors always made time for a little gossip and chitchat with their customers. It was just part of doing business in those days.
Since these were the conservative times before Vatican II, Catholics still observed meatless Fridays. On that night, dinner fare was often take-out fishn chips brought home in oil stained brown paper bags. The Scottish influence, dont you know. Kearny was home to no fewer than six of these restaurants, from Thompsons on the south end of town, up to the Argyle on Kearny Avenue. All of these grease fogged eateries were jammed on the last workday of the week, and to my knowledge are still popular attractions for people from all over north Jersey who love batter fried codfish and French fries.
Our generation was spared the horror of health catastrophes like the influenza epidemic that plagued America following WWI. That disaster killed millions, including Ellen Rogan, my Mothers 20-year-old sister. But we were still vulnerable to childhood scourges like smallpox and Polio, and other diseases that have since been vanquished. Modern medical miracles delivered by skilled specialists were unavailable, so general practice family doctors that made house calls were our first line of defense against injury and illness. The medical guardian of the Mason family was Dr. Louis Shapiro. I clearly remember him as a refined gentleman, with a comforting bedside manner and who bore a slight resemblance to the movie actor, Edward G. Robinson.
But I dont recall my first encounter with Dr. Shapiro because it took place in my mothers bedroom, when he brought me into this world on January 13, 1933. Dr. S. told my mom I was such a beautiful baby, that he looked forward to seeing me when I turned 21. Such flattery really impressed my parents, so during my growing up they made sure I went to the good doctor for all my health needs.
That included the removal of my tonsils on our metal topped kitchen table when I was seven years old. I recollect him covering my face with a wash cloth soaked in ether anesthetic and soothingly assuring me that everything would be all right. Although this sounds awfully primitive, it worked out just fine, and with the same good results he performed another kitchen table tonsillectomy two years later for my brother. Ice cream was a recuperation treat we both enjoyed. Whenever I broke a bone, or suffered any of childhoods maladies, Dr. Shapiro was always able to make it better. My familys trust in this dignified, soft-spoken man was almost as deferential as our respect for our priest, and our healthy survival affirms that confidence.
I havent made much mention of my brother Francis or my sister Catherine because they were both younger, and had their own circle of friends. Francis was 22 months younger, and Catherine was born seven years after me. Sadly, they are both dead now, unable to tell their own nostalgic stories. But as these memories come to life on my monitor screen, I can feel their presence looking over my shoulder, smiling and chuckling at my tales of familiar friends and familiar places.
I remarked earlier that Mr. Evans owned two cars. One was a going-to-work-car, and the other a pale green Lincoln that was kept spotless in the garage during the week. On weekends, the Evans family would use the Lincoln for excursions to the upscale suburbs, public parks and other beauty spots of New Jersey. Afterwards, Arnold would tell me about the wonderful places and things he saw from the back seat of the car. After these tours, we met to gossip on his brick porch about Montclair, Mountainside, Glen Ridge and other posh towns in Essex and Union counties. When we got older, Arnolds family went on longer trips, and I heard about the mountains of Colorado and other marvelous places far from where I had ever been.
These were my early glimpses of the world outside Rose Street. I wasnt aware of it then, but those bull sessions nurtured an ambition to someday see and live in Those Far Away Places that Patti Page sang about on the jukebox at Carmines soda shop. Which was exactly what happened to Arnold and me, and many of our boyhood friends. I guess this is just the way it is. Just the way it should be.
The day the bell rang to signal the start of my first term in High School, in September 1946, marked the beginning of the end of this magical time in my life. Although I continued living on Rose Street for another eight years, studying and working my way through Kearny High and Fairleigh Dickinson College, the journey that would take me far from the innocence of childhood had already begun. From now on the circle of life would only widen. The future could no longer be contained within a half-mile stretch of asphalt bounded by Kearny Avenue and Belgrove Drive.
My fantasy trip back home is over, and now that Ive returned to the real world with a bunch of happy memory souvenirs, I wish everyone could take a trip back to a Rose Street of their own.
Jack Mason, 6/22/02
Cooper's Block, the Kearny NJ neighborhood ( 10 miles west of Manhattan ) where my father, his brother Robert "Buck" Mason, and his sisters Annie & Martha Mason grew up is long gone. The "Block" dates back to 1880 when it's reason for being was to house local factory workers. In a 1946 newsletter called the Cooper's Block Echo a group of former residents organized to write the Echo as a remembrance of their "hood". Ten years earlier the last of the original 5 tenements, the Johnston-Sheridan building was razed to save taxes after many of the tenants had moved to more "modern" homes. The chairman of the Echo group was an alumnus, Fred Hartley who went on to become a congressman & co-author of a seminal labor law called the Taft-Hartley bill. It is worth noting that Fred Hartley was probably the only Protestant, and most certainly the only Republican resident on the "Block". The fact that his Catholic, Democrat neighbors elected him their town councilman while still in his teens, and avidly supported him for many years as their Congressman in Washington, testifies to a "multiculturalism" uninformed by fashion or Political Correctness. Below are excerpts from the Echo...
It was in the early 1880's that a gang of carpenters, a handful of masons and a few plumbers, many of them boasting handle-bar moustaches, started throwing board, brick and pipes together at the corner of Johnston and Sheridan avenues. As the building took shape one could see that partitions were numerous and not too far apart. In keeping with other buildings of the area, the pipes carried fresh water to kitchens and waste water to a sewer.
Bathrooms were unheard of and when nature called one answered by hieing him or herself to the row of "one-seaters" in the rear of the building.
Mid-summer of 1885 found that a new and then modern tenement filled with families, the majority from the British Isles, and prospective employees of the Marshall Thread Mill only a stone's throw away. The ground floor corner housed a general store operated by the owners, Mr. & Mrs. John Cooper, recent arrivals from Paterson with their family of three, John H., W.Fred, and Martha Cooper, who were enrolled at No.2 School, at Johnston and Kearny avenues, the following fall.
As more families arrived in Kearny from the "other side" for promised jobs at Marshall's or at the Nairn Linoleum Company, four additional tenements were erected by the Coopers between 1885 and 1892, two in Lincoln avenue and two in Sheridan avenue.
Built in the "gaslight" era, the 55 family tenements were "luxurious homes" to the hard working tenants in the 15 years before the turn of the century. Though heat came from kitchen ranges fired by coal bought by the scuttle or bag and more often by wood brought home from their employment by the heads of families and their male offspring who usually were introduced to factory labor before they were 11 years old. The Block was in every sense a real home.
The Passaic River was the "Blocks" bathtub in the summer and the family washtub was utilized by the women & males alike in the winter. Judge John H Cooper, a son of the original owner, recalls that the blizzard of 1888 found many of the tenants snowed in for almost a week, and that he, with his father and brother Fred, dug two-foot wide paths from the doors of the Sheridan avenue tenements to their store which was almost depleted of stock before Newark jobbers could get their horses and wagons through the snow with fresh supplies.
"Many vividly recall the headlines that greeted us back in '17. The declaration of war against Germany after Heinie submarines sent our ships and men to watery graves. The rush to the Newark Armory to enlist started immediately. The exodus from"The Block" included youths in their teens and men with families. Soon street corners and saloons were deserted and blue star pennants in almost every home indicated that 112 boys of "The Block" had answered their country's call.. Then came that electrifying radio flash the afternoon of December 7, 1941. The Japs had attacked Pearl Harbor. Again as 25 years before "The Block" rallied to the call. The same area that sent its sons and fathers into khaki and Navy blue in "17---was again unhesitatingly giving its youth to the cruelest and most devesating conflict the world has ever known."
Cooper's Block Echo 1946
COOPER' BLOCK FUNNIES
The first "Hillbilly" orchestra in Kearny and probably in the East, was a one man affair, Tom Dyer and his accordion. Tom's tunes were his own and strictly "mountain music." He frequently accompanied The Block's original vaudeville team of Laval and Mason. Singers and dancers, Johnny Laval and Johnny Mason Sr. were tops in local entertainment. The two Johnnies topped the programs at Evans Hall, taverns, christenings, and frequently wakes, bringing more laughs than any Palace headliner of the "gaslight" era. Cooper's Block Echo1946.
DOWN MEMORY'S LANE..(DO YOU REMEMBER?)
Pete Mohan's fish and chip shop in Grant avenue where Johnny Mason clicked as the singing waiter
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The practice of many Block housewives to wait until almost 6 PM to buy their fish at John McGarrity's in the old Cooper's store. They knew John had to cut the price then or throw the fish away.
Eddie "Tough" Tiernan's trip to "Daddy" Stokes with his mother for a new First Communion shirt. What blouse size does he wear asked "Daddy". "I don't know answered the confused Mrs. Tiernan, "But he wears a 71/2 size hat."
"Denny" Maguire's barber shop in the Johnston avenue block where you might have to wait with one side of your face shaved while "Denny" made a quick visit to Aunt Kate's (saloon). The Irish were loyal to him and even mothers insisted their offspring patronize Maguire's rather than Tom Rizzolo.
Which brings to mind the summer day young Johnny Mason told his mother he was going to get a "Riley" (crewcut). "You'll do nothing of the kind said Mrs. Mason, "you go right over to "Denny" Maguire's and get your hair cut.
Joe "Satchel" Toman was The Block's first and only itinerant clothes salesman. Sporting a tape measure and a "bale" of cloth samples in the satchel,. he'd take your measure on a $35 suit for only $15, pick up seconds on the Bowery and deliver a "made to order" outfit two days later. He'd explain to protesting patrons when colors or patterns didn't match the original selections, "we were out of that particular goods so I gave you a better grade for the same money."
John Quinn, who succeeded Johnny Mason as the Block's hand shaking insurance man.
Billy Warrick in "Baldy" Magee's saloon: "Old Charley Rowley is pretty close-mouth this morning ain't he?" Baldy: "He ain't close-mouthed. He's waiting for Paddy Gallagher to come back with the spitoon he's washing."
When Mickey Boyle blew the $10 he saved to pay Father Conroy for his wedding and persuaded Judge Keenan of East Newark to tie the nuptial knot "on the arm." Mickey took his bride for a walk to Paterson as a honeymoon.
Jack Eccles was tending bar for "Doc" Livasy in Johnston avenue when a stranger entered and asked for a glass of beer. Jack, whose right leg was shorter than his left, started to draw the ale when the stranger said, "would you mind putting a little porter in it?" As Jack moved to his right to the last tap, he went down on the right foot which prompted the stranger to remark, "Oh never mind if you have to go downstairs for it." Yes, you guessed it---the stranger got the ale right in the puss.
The gang often braved the odors of the Block's "one-seaters" to shoot crap in the alley Sunday mornings.
COOPER'S BLOCK ANECDOTES FROM THE ECHO
The Bucket Brigade
Neither roosters nor alarm clocks were needed to awaken drowsy tenants of The Block back in the late 1890's, and early 1900's.
The old "Bucket Brigade" chore usually provoked arguments among the younger male gentry and frequently loud enough to awaken the dead.
It might be in the Randall, McAleavy or Ward families, or in any other of the more than fifty "apartments" on The Block. The older and female members of families were not expected to answer nature's call after dark or in the wee small hours of the morning by using the "one-seaters" in the yard.
Each family had a bucket for that specific purpose which the boys emptied every morning. As frequently happens even today, schedules were not always adhered to and Bill (now Police Captain) and Andy Randall, the McAleavy boys, Joe and Harry, or the Wards, John "Pip', the late Eddie or Joe, would often loudly argue as to whose turn it was to carry the bucket to the "one-seaters" and wash them out. The "bucket brigade" was always an odoriferous affair.
A LION IN A BAGGY BASEBALL UNIFORM
It was April 1947, and Jackie Robinson bunted home the winning run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in his historic major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The previous year Robinson was the first black ballplayer to take the field in "white only" professional baseball. Branch Rickey had decided it was the right thing to do, and it was the right time to do it...signing the historic contract that ultimately made Jackie Robinson, the famous #42 on the outstanding Brooklyn Dodger teams of the post war years.
The summer before Jackie wore a Dodger uniform my dad took me to Rupert Stadium in “Down-Neck” Newark, NJ, to see the future Hall of Famer play my heroes, the Newark Bears. The Bears were the Yankee farm team in the International League, and Robinson the rising star of the visiting Montreal Royals, the Dodgers farm club. Since I was an avid Yankee fan with a bedroom wall filled with their photographs, it followed that I also rooted for Yogi Berra, Charlie Keller, and all the other Yankee wannabees that played for the Bears in those days.
I particularly remember Robinson’s spectacular base running, and the way the crowd came to life every time he approached the plate. Our grandstand seats were good enough to see the Newark players taunting him, but their catcalls, undoubtedly crude, were inaudible. Whatever his tormentors were spewing, he gave them no more notice than the regal lion gives the hyena. In his baggy gray visitor’s uniform, Jackie projected a slightly pigeon-toed athletic grace, and played baseball with an intensity I had never seen before. I have no memory of who won the game, but I’ll never forget how his hustle dominated the field of play on that sunny afternoon back in ‘46. He was truly an electrifying athlete, and even as a 13-year-old kid I sensed that.
Now after sixty years of being an on-again, off-again baseball fan I can look nostalgically back upon being thrilled by Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium. Amazed by the perfect swing of the “Splendid Splinter” at Boston’s Fenway Park. Cheering Luis Aparicio and Nelly Fox at the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. Rooting Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva at Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium to a pennant in 1965, only to see Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale handcuff the Twins sluggers in the World Series. Marveling at an ancient Satchel Paige pitching for the Kansas City Athletics to players half his age. Today I look forward to watching the Jones boys and the remarkable 2007 Atlanta Braves on TV.
Its been my good luck to visit many ballparks over the years, and cheer scores of baseball legends, but at a rickety minor league stadium back in 1946 it was a Georgia sharecropper’s son whose autograph I wanted most. And for my money his legacy goes far beyond his remarkable skills. It resides in the minds & hearts of Americans inspired by the example of the Lion in a Baggy Baseball Uniform who taught us all how to play a much bigger game than baseball.
July 30, 2002
Down the Shore in "44"
My dad died back in 1963, but Father’s Day evokes a memory of him and a family vacation that took place 57 summers ago when I was eleven years old. In those WWII days we lived in Kearny, a working class town hard by the city of Newark, and 10 miles west of the Big Apple. Our vacation destination was Seaside Heights, 80 miles south on the Jersey coast. So, with high spirits, my parents, brother, sister, and I piled into dad’s 1938 gray Ford and headed out for this 1940s paradise wedged between the crashing Atlantic Ocean and choppy Barnegat Bay.
Pumped with juvenile excitement, we finally arrived at the little bungalow we had rented for two weeks in the sun. My brother and I scrambled to claim sleeping space, while Mom lugged in the bedlinens, pots & pans, and food supplies. The old Ford had not yet cooled down when Pop sauntered over to the Gangplank Bar & Grill to make some new friends and quench his thirst.
With our gear unpacked, Mom gave us 25c to play the skee-ball games, feed pennies into the amusement machines, buy an apple on a stick or a ticket to a thrill ride.
I remember it like it was only yesterday, the crowded ocean beach and the sailboats tacking in the bay. The carousel calliope melodies merging with delicious smells from tantalizing food stands, saltwater taffy, and brackish seaweed. Neon signs and fast talking pitchmen luring us to all kinds of fun. Brassy music bellowing from the Chatterbox boardwalk bar as overexposed vacationers stroll by looking like boiled lobsters. And the infectious howling laughter echoing from the giant fat lady icon in front of the Fun House. Ha-ha, Ho-ho-Ha-ha!
After an action filled 14 days, we stuffed clamshells and souvenir pennies imprinted with the Lord’s Prayer into cigar boxes, and my father tanned from his fishing expeditions, said goodbye to his Gangplank pals. Mom had cleaned our rental house, and repacked the car. On roads that predated superhighways, dad piloted our stick shifting ‘38 back home to Kearny in grueling bumper to bumper traffic. He did so with calm resignation as we slept in the back seat dreaming of an unforgettable holiday. When the old Ford finally parked in our driveway, it was wake up time and back to the real world until next summer. You may be gone Dad, but your not forgotten. Thanks for the memories!
CPL PATRICK KANES BURIAL SITE
ST. MIHEIL AMERICAN CEMETARY
FROM AMERICAN RED CROSS, BASE HOSPITAL NO. 63 (France)
Feb. 5, 1919
re. Patrick Kane, 551470 Cpl. Co. H. 38th Infantry
From Annie Wheeler, Home Communication Service to Mom’s grandmother, Anna (Burns) Kane.
My dear Mrs. Kane,
You have already been informed by the Government of the death of your dear boy, from the result of a gunshot wound received in action, in this hospital on Feb 1.
This is just a line to express to you the deepest and tenderest sympathy of the Red Cross and of myself personally.
I know how deep and crushing your grief is, but it is a wonderful glory for a young man to have the blessed privilege of giving his life for his Country in her hour of greatest need.
You will see others grow old and feeble and suffer many pains but he will always be your boy, in the Land where there is no more pain and where youth is eternal.
He was so patient and uncomplaining and always cheerful. Every morning he would tell me he thought he was coming along alright.
Every one who knew him was very fond of him and it was a pleasure, and a privilege to do anything in the world for him. He was so looking forward to going home, but the condition of the wound became such that it was necessary to take the bullet out, and just at dawn on the morning of the first of Feb. he closed his eyes in this world and opened them in Heaven.
He was buried with military honors in grave 152 in the American Military Cemetery No. 31. His comrades marched beside the flag draped casket and the bugler sounded “Taps” at the end of the service.
The nurse gave me his Rosary, which I am sending you under separate cover.
With renewed expressions of sympathy,
Sincerely your friend, Annie Wheeler
Home Communications Service.
NJ to Cuba, 1957
I arrived early into the operations shack at the tiny grass airstrip in Hanover, NJ. It was just a little after midnight on a balmy summer night in 1957, and as far as I could tell I was the only person at the field. McNulty had told me that the wind most favorable for take-off would be blowing after 2:00AM. So here I was waiting for him and two other guys who were to join us for a flight to Havana, Cuba in McNulty’s rakish 4 seater like the one in the above museum photograph. His maroon Howard was a direct descendant of Ben Howard’s famous 1930s champion racing plane, “Mr. Mulligan”, and an aeronautical antique even back in 1957.
With time to kill, I fed a dime into the Coke machine, plopped down in a ratty old lounge chair and smoked a cigarette. A radio whispered melancholy wee-hours-of-the-morning music as I drifted off to sleep.
A college buddy, who thought I might be of help to McNulty on this flight to Cuba because of my military flying experience, had introduced us. McNulty had never flown on a long trip cross-country, and I had no flying time in a Howard. But we were all in our early twenties and our appetite for a Cuban adventure trumped caution. Although we knew each other only slightly, we agreed to give it a go. I’ve forgotten McNulty’s first name, but I vividly recall that one of his eyes had a chronic teary moistness about it. I also remember him as a good guy, and as it turned out, a pretty good pilot as well.
At 1:30AM I awoke from my nap when our two passengers arrived. One of these “preppies” was a fellow named Pinkerton who had gone to school with the Cuban who was to be our host and guide in Havana. Pinkerton also was the only one in our group who could speak Spanish. The other passenger was a very tall, preppy type guy whose name has also faded from my memory. The three of us continued to cool our heels, since McNulty was still enjoying his date with his girlfriend. And as we learned later his girlfriend had more to do with the plan for a 2:00AM takeoff, than “favorable” winds.
When he came through the door at 2:15AM, McNulty was a happy dude, anxious to get under way. After a few minutes of small talk, we decided to get on with the show. Since this was to be a VFR trip where we relied on being able to see where we were going instead of flying “on instruments”, we had a minimum of red tape to worry about, like filing and holding to a flight plan. Under VFR rules we could pretty much go whenever and wherever we wanted to. But, to my surprise, McNulty had an incomplete assortment of sectionals (aerial maps), and a balky radio. Sometimes it worked fine and sometimes it didn’t, making our air-to-ground communications problematic. So we decided to visually track our way down the Atlantic Coast line from NJ to Miami relying on ordinary road maps for the missing sectionals. From Miami we planned to “dead reckon” the ninety miles over water to Cuba.
OK, so our flight preparation wasn’t textbook perfect, and our equipment wasn’t completely up-to-snuff, but we figured what the hell--Lindbergh had made it across the Atlantic with even less. With more bravado than brains we proceeded to stuff our personal gear into the tiny luggage compartment, and wait for McNulty to make his last minute examination of the airplane before climbing aboard. That was when our first major problem popped up.
McNulty correctly assessed that the combination of gear and people loaded the airplane with more weight than could safely take-off from Hanover Field’s short runway. So after a brief debate, we decided that it would make more sense for him to solo the Howard to the longer paved runways of nearby Morristown airport, where we would all meet and begin our journey. As we watched in horror, McNulty used almost the entire grass runway before he got his old bird off the ground; his climb-out so shallow he barely cleared the telephone pole wires waiting to snare him on the other side of the field. Whew, what a beginning!
When we finally got organized and took-off from Morristown, it was still dark. It would be an hour before sunrise would provide a clear view of where land and sea meet. Until then our plan was to head east for the coast and then fly south. Confused by what we thought were the dim lights of Northern NJ peeking up through the scattered clouds below us, we overshot the coast because we mistook ocean white caps for city lights. The rising sun revealed that we were already well out to sea! During all of this our two passengers were sound asleep in the cramped backseats, while up front McNulty and I were piloting the Howard. Now our only option was to reverse heading to due west, and fly our way back to terra firma. This correction probably took only minutes, but because we had no idea of how far off course we actually were, it seemed like hours. It was then that an unexpected crisis woke up our sleeping beauties and scared the be-jeezuz out of all of us.
Heading back to the beach with nothing but water below us, the engine on the Howard started to cough and sputter. A quick check of the instrument panel revealed that we were running out of fuel. From 5000 feet, we started losing altitude and began descending towards the inky Atlantic for what looked like an involuntary swim. But to coolheaded McNulty’s credit, he quickly remembered to switch to the secondary fuel tank since we had obviously exhausted the gas in the primary tank. I immediately gave the fuel transfer “wobble pump” a frantic wobble, accompanied by our passenger’s mumbled supplications to every Saint in Heaven. At 1000 feet, all of us stopped holding our breath as the Howard’s thirsty engine guzzled the new supply of fuel and roared back to life. Climbing back to altitude we were soon comforted by the sight of land. But at this point we had no idea if the landfall in front of us was Maine, Florida, or any of the states in between. Shades of Wrong way Corrigan!
Since its considered bush-league aviation not to know where you are, all hands were told to keep a sharp lookout for landmarks that might help identify our location. We consulted the maps that we did have, to discover that we were flying over Rehoboth Beach, Delaware just east of Washington. This meant that after nearly three hours in the air we had progressed a mere 200 miles towards our ultimate destination. At this rate we could expect to make it to Miami faster in an automobile. But instead of calling it quits, we decided to straighten up and fly right, and confident that the worst was behind us we vectored for our original first leg destination, Rocky Mount, NC. Two hours later we flew over a barn hangar that had ROCKY MOUNT painted on its roof.
After refueling the airplane and schmoozing with the locals, we set out for Jacksonville, Florida. It was early Saturday afternoon, and our plan was to get a little snooze and some R&R in Jacksonville before leaving early Sunday morning for Miami and Havana. But along the way some pretty ominous thunderclouds popped up right along our flight route. As these clouds became more threatening, I worried that we might have to go to ground since we certainly couldn’t fly through that kind of turbulence in a Howard. Soon the increasingly rough weather made it clear we had no choice. So we started looking around for an accessible emergency landing field, which in this case turned out to be Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, SC. With no civilian airport handy, it was just our luck to have to impose ourselves upon Uncle Sam. As we started our descent, I had my fingers crossed that he would be in a good mood.
Touching down at Shaw, with runways so big we could have landed on them sideways, the base operations officer was already waiting for us in a jeep. As we taxied to a stop, he stepped out of the jeep, removed his cap, scratched his head in wonderment and yelled—“Where the hell did y’all come from? Outer Space?” After reminding us that we were on U.S. Government property and would have to fill out a ton of forms explaining our emergency landing, he led us to his office. Actually, he proved to be a pretty good guy who helped us with the paperwork, and hinted that we were lucky it was a weekend when base “regs” are a little more relaxed than normal. After three cups of coffee, he provided us an Air Force weather profile that showed a clearing sky, so we thanked him and headed once more for Jacksonville.
Upon arriving safely at Jacksonville, we scoffed down some pizza and beer, bunked in at a cheap motel, and slept till early Sunday morning when we pushed off for Miami.
Flying down the Florida Coast in bright sunshine was delightful and uneventful until we came to the Cape Canaveral Air Identification Zone (ADIZ) which on all the official map literature was prohibited to unauthorized aircraft. That meant us! But before we realized it, we were flying right over the most sensitive NASA facility in the world. For this kind of trespass black helicopters could have shot us down, but Lady Luck smiled and we sailed right over Canaveral without a hitch. Since our radio wasn’t receiving, we probably missed out on hearing some pretty irate Air Force transmissions, and in blissful ignorance just continued lumbering our way on down towards Miami.
It was late afternoon, Sunday, when we parked on the ramp at Miami International. It seemed quiet, and there was plenty of room, so we made a beeline for the airport lounge and a nice cold brew. While yukking it up at the bar, a loudspeaker announcement barked for the immediate return of the owner of the little red plane blocking the service ramp area. And don’t you know when we got there it was now crowded with jetliners that made our Howard look like a toy under their gigantic wings. There we also encountered a highly agitated airport guy whose red face and blue language made it clear that we had to get out of there, pronto. When we told him we were headed for Havana, he said, “Serves you right. The Cubans don’t allow landings after sundown”. We pointed out that it was already 6:30PM, and we would never make it. “That’s your problem, Sonny, but you ain’t staying here. So you better get going”. Which is exactly what we did, hoping that the Cubans would be understanding of our tardy arrival.
Good weather, clear visibility, and a reliable compass made our 45-minute flight to Havana a success. Below was Jose Marti airport and the glittering lights of Habana. Batista wasn’t shooting us out of the sky after all! After a slightly bumpy landing, the engine noise in the cabin of the Howard was drowned out by the victory shouts and “high-fives” of four happy Gringos. Cuba, here we come!
But it wasn’t going to be quite that easy. Waiting for us at the reception area, a mustachioed customs guy jabbered something in Spanish about us owing him fifty dollars for a “landing fee”. McNulty knew this was a petty Latin style extortion, so he instructed Pinkerton to negotiate a deal. The Cuban in his seedy looking military duds and our frat-boy Pinkerton in lime green shorts, dickered for a few minutes and finally settled on ten bucks which the customs hustler then greedily stuffed into his wallet. Bienvenidos Cuba!
The odyssey in the Howard from Hanover to Havana was now over, and an exciting holiday in a strange and sometimes frightening country was about to begin. Our guide, Paco, made it possible for us to see and do things that ordinary tourists could never hope to do, especially during those days of extraordinary social and economic upheaval. And against this dramatic historic backdrop, I survived a thrilling adventure that lives on as a treasured memory of an old codger. It just doesn’t get any better than that!
Jack Mason, Feb 3, 2003
EPILOGUE: After returning from Cuba, I lost contact with the three young men with whom I shared my adventure. But twenty-four years later, my wife and I took a “no-frills” flight from NY to San Juan when I noticed a bulkhead placard that identified “Capt. McNulty” as the pilot of the airliner. After we arrived in Puerto Rico and were exiting the plane, I knocked on the open cockpit door, and from his pilot’s seat a smiling, “teary” eyed Captain turned to respond to my hello. It was him.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF ROBERTO
His name is Roberto, a Filipino office worker in the city of Makati, a suburb of Manila. He got his job through an employment agency, which pays the mandated minimum daily wage of 250 Pesos a day, the equivalent of U.S. $6.06. After paying his income tax, social security tax, and agency commission, he is left with P200. When he subtracts from this the P100 he spent for transportation to work and lunch, he winds up with a bottom line of P100.
On his way home in traffic so congested that it moves along at less than 10mph, he stops at McDonald’s and splurges on a Big Mac, French fries, and a large Coke. The bill is P100.
You can do the arithmetic.
Yet Roberto considers himself lucky because according to the World Bank, 46% of all Filipinos live on less than U.S. $2.00 a day. He is thankful that he is unmarried and can live at home with his parents who give him a free bowl of rice every morning; rice that would be two thirds cheaper in Thailand. He sees himself as lucky because he has no wife and no children to send to school. He is grateful that his good health spares him the expense of costly medicines, which in the Philippines costs three times more than in India.
He sees his life through this dubious rosy prism because he knows many Filipinos are not so lucky. He tolerates his miserable reality because he knows that most companies thumb their noses at minimum wage laws and give their workers even less. Roberto doesn’t complain because 5 million Filipinos have no job at all, and another 6 million have no regular source of income. If that same scale of unemployment and underemployment plagued the U.S. there would be 45 million Americans in this tragic condition.
He is not alone, and like the billion wretches that live on this planet in poverty beyond our understanding, Roberto plods on. But for how long?
Jack Mason, Tryon, NC
February 10, 2003
It has been almost nine years since I actually worked fulltime for a living. For a few years I dabbled part time, so I’ll benchmark the year 1996 as my official retirement from selling toys.That should be enough professional and emotional interval to attempt a critical assessment of my business-life; its 40th anniversary occurring with my attendance at the 1996 Toy Show. So, after having invested such a large chunk of my life selling toys, I wonder if I’d do it all over again. As I begin I really can’t be sure what the answer to that question is, or where this introspection will take me.
After discharge from the Marine Corps in the summer of 1956, I began to look for my place in the business world. I knew my abilities and interests vectored away from number crunching, administration, or engineering and more towards jobs that rewarded creativity and people skills. Since I was more of a “talker” than a “techie”, I pointed my career compass in the direction of marketing—the fancy term for selling something—hoping that this would be my best strategy for making a “good living”.
This led me to a NYC placement agency called Thorndyke/Deland, a company specializing in placing sales executives. My first discussion with T/D identified only one firm actively seeking a “sales executive”, in August 1956. My interest level in this job opportunity was not very high because the company was a toy manufacturer, and in those days I certainly didn’t see the toy business as worthy of my hi-falutin’ ambitions. I was 23 years old, a veteran and college grad, aiming at working in industries much bigger and more glamorous than merely making and marketing amusements for kids! But, because they were the only prospective employer at that time, I agreed to interview with the toy maker, chalking it up as a learning experience. The company turned out to be Lionel Trains, headquartered on 26th Street in mid Manhattan. I headed for this new fork in the road of my life, fully convinced I was not going to take it, but little did I know how wrong I was….
As I sat in the Lionel office lobby, waiting to be summoned for my interview, I was awed by the nearly life size model of a steam engine’s front end that appeared to be roaring right out of the wall. Like the huge toy train layout that dominated the gallery just beyond the lobby, these displays very dramatically underscored the theme of the Lionel business...making toy trains that were advertised as "a lifetime's investment in happiness". Tired of thumbing through magazines, I engaged the receptionist in conversation about this most famous of toy companies. My interest tweaked as she told me of the company’s colorful history. The Lionel name was premier in the toy industry, tracing back to the early 1900s when Joshua Lionel Cowen founded the company. From that modest beginning, Lionel’s skillful management of a popular cultural toy icon developed into a big business, and one of America’s best recognized brands. Mid ‘50s sales volume was 25 million dollars, equivalent in 2000 terms to a 500 million-dollar enterprise! And all of this was accomplished with a sales group of only 14 field salesmen. Not a bad place to be for beginning a career...certainly as compared to the army of look-alike rivals I would have had compete with in a "big" company.
With more interest in this job than when I first arrived at Lionel’s office, I was finally called into Mr. Sam Belser’s office for my interview. He was the National Sales Manager, and very smartly tailored, like all the men and women I had witnessed taking care of business that day. No nonsense managers, scurrying about the office these were the sophisticated and well dressed embodiment of what I thought successful New Yorkers were supposed to look like; particularly impressive to a young guy just recently sprung loose from the world of military uniforms, and casual college attire. I also remember clearly how fashionable the men looked in their colored dress shirts, eschewing the dictum of only white shirts that was probably still the regimen in stuffier businesses. It was a time before trousers for women were acceptable, and of glamorous women in tight skirts, very high heels, lots of jewelry, layered make-up, and black tailored blouses and jackets. Fifty years later, I'm still amused how de rigueur is the color black for business attire in NYC, and most major cities around the world.
Mr. Belser’s demeanor was pleasant, if a bit detached, and he seemed vaguely uncomfortable with conventional interview banter, removing his rimless glasses frequently to wipe them with a handkerchief. I learned later that that was indeed the case, since Lionel had not hired a new salesman in years, and Mr. B was almost as inexperienced at interviewing as I was at being interviewed.
But we did our best. He asked me clichéd questions for which I supplied clichéd answers. At one point, he surprised me by interrupting in mid-sentence my claim to being the world’s best candidate for this job, with an unexpected inquiry about smoking. I told him that I did indeed smoke, to which he smiled for the first time, and implored me to give him a cigarette. He had quit the habit, you see, or rather he had quit buying cigarettes, and he now needed one badly. In the 5 years I spent at Lionel, Mr. Belser never ceased to “borrow” cigarettes from me, occasionally balancing the scales when he would call me in to his office to repay me with a carton of Pall-Malls.
Sam Belser ended our discussion when he simply asked me if I wanted the job. I responded by telling him I was flattered, and would like to learn more about Lionel before answering. He seemed agreeable to that idea, and instructed me to wait in the lobby, for another interview with the company Vice President, Mr. Allen Ginsburg. Sam Belser’s physical appearance was professorial and mildly comical and bore a faint resemblance to Burt Lahr, the actor of Cowardly Lion fame in the Wizard of Oz. As National Sales Manager, Mr. Belser was both a professional, and a gentleman. He remains in my memory, as one of my earliest and fondest contacts in the business world.
Mr. Ginsburg, from the first handshake conveyed his in-charge personality and New York urbanity. He looked like a paunchy, elegant owl in his stylish horn rimmed glasses, generous girth, and shiny black hair. His very broad smile had the effect of zipping his eyes so tightly shut that the silly speculation popped into my youthful head that maybe this rendered him sightless. An impeccable pinstripe suit, a pair of Church’s wing-tip shoes, and fifty dollar tie filled out the picture of a guy who could well have been one of the “regulars” at the bar of the 21 Club. When he spoke, his ideas came out precise and clear, and he seemed on familiar ground employing the power of language to get things accomplished. Before coming to Lionel, Allen Ginsburg had been a big shot at Macy’s in NYC, and his extraordinary talents were vital to Lionel in the rapidly changing world that was impacting their business in the late 1950s. More on that later.
Mr. Ginsburg, presumably satisfied by Mr. Belser’s support for my candidacy, proceeded quickly to the bottom line. The job as a “sales executive” (really just a fancy title for a junior salesman for the New England Region) was mine, if I wanted it, and if we could agree on what I should be paid. I was fully prepared to defend with Dale Carnegie persuasiveness my claim to no less than 100 dollars per week, justifying it as the level of pay I recently enjoyed as a First Lieutenant, USMC…when Mr. Ginsburg cut me short. He thrust his hand at me and declared, “Great. Then we have a deal!” I left his office full of anticipation about my new career, but somewhat chastened by the possibility that I had sold myself short in our salary negotiation.
That first year “on the road” exposed me to the challenge, excitement, and glamour that confirmed the wisdom of joining Lionel. My worry over salary negotiations proved unnecessary, as Mr. G. personally rewarded me with three incremental pay raises that first year. First class hotels, airline travel, expense accounts, company cars, and the money to live a high style bachelor’s life were heady new experiences for the kid from Kearny. The exhilaration of all this, plus the approval and encouragement of men that I respected, obscured the ominous warnings of a good business about to suffer from the changing landscape of American retailing. Ironically, 1956 proved to be the best year in Lionel’s history, but from there the toy train business was destined for derailment hidden just round the bend.
The next four years of my personal and business life were pivotal in many ways. During those 48 months I met and married my wife, I was promoted and transferred to Lionel’s Chicago office, I acclimated to the Midwestern life, and came to realize that my company was facing a major challenge to it’s very existence. America’s fascination with railroading was waning as trains were being replaced by other modes of transportation. The romance of steam locomotion had given way to non glamorous diesels, people used trains far less frequently for travel, and in the toy business kids were more excited by model auto racing, than model railroading. Lionel attempted to adjust to these changing trends, but each effort proved to be too little, and too late. In my heart I knew it was only a matter of time, so I reluctantly began to consider leaving this fine company, and it’s wonderful people.
When the opportunity arose in late 1962, I made the move to the A.C. Gilbert Company, the maker of American Flyer electric trains, Gilbert chemistry sets, Gilbert microscopes, and Erector Set construction toys. Gilbert had similar changing market problems, but a new top management group in New Haven gave me to think they could & would redirect this company to a new & brighter future than I saw at Lionel.
I was transferred back east to cover the mid-Atlantic Region, so I moved my wife and two baby children, Ellen and Jack, from Illinois to Silver Spring, Maryland. As I look back on this decision, I don’t believe I ever considered looking outside the toy industry once I decided to leave Lionel, so I guess my commitment to selling toys as a career was pretty much cemented by early 1963 when we moved to Maryland.
Signing on with Gilbert meant joining a company and people I knew and respected as competitors of Lionel. The Gilbert product line was more diversified, but also became victim to changing consumer trends. The appeal of learning basic chemistry and microscope science, or the satisfaction that derives from building something was being replaced by the rise of gimmicky character licensed toys, promoted at enormous expense with great frequency on television. The sixties were indeed watershed years in the toy business, when manufacturing began transferring to cheaper facilities in the Far East, plastics assumed dominance as a fabricating material, and TV advertising propelled huge consumption for new and novel toys as had never been seen before in this industry.
All of this impacted companies like Lionel and A.C. Gilbert, making their old marketing formulas obsolete. Mattel, and others, had reinvented toy merchandising in the image of more sophisticated marketing techniques and the business was irrevocably changed. Success now demanded enormous up-front risk assumption, with huge rewards for picking and promoting the right products, and disaster for choosing “duds”. This “river boat” mentality was foreign to the experiences of old-line toy makers, and those that resisted paid the ultimate price. Thus was the sad fate of my first two employers, and for similar reasons, this was also to be the fate of four, out of my next five, toy companies!
Working for so many failed enterprises, raises the obvious question of why I remained in such a high fatality industry? At the time it was easy to swim from one sinking ship to another, because the new company always held out the hope of making it in this very tough, unpredictable business. It was also a well paying, if risky business, and with my family obligations the money was a major attraction. Also, after acquiring experience that was valuable to prospective toy employers, I was reluctant to abandon that advantage to take my chances in a new industry. I suspect this kind of entrapment characterizes the way many people live out their professional lives. On balance, although I might have benefited from a career change, I think staying with toys was probably the right choice for me.
My time with A.C. Gilbert provided the opportunity for one of the most important and exciting contacts of my business career. It was during this period that I first encountered the people and company that revolutionized the toy business, Toys R Us. In the early sixties, Mr. Charles Lazarus had introduced the novel concept of mass assortment toy retailing that later proved so successful throughout the world as TRU. In those days his four Washington DC area stores were known as Children’s Super Markets, employing store fixtures and merchandise display layouts that resembled the format used in food super markets. Toy retailing would never be the same.
The Lazarus idea was a radical departure from conventional toy merchandising, and his “hands on” involvement gave his business a flair that made it particularly exciting for supplier representatives. Charles and Sy Ziv challenged toy company reps to join them in finding new ways to present and promote our products, and he made young fellows like myself feel like participants in a grand reformation of our industry. Mr. Lazarus must have sensed my enthusiasm for his fledgling enterprise because he invited me to join his organization. I declined because I felt I was better suited to selling toys than buying toys. But his offer remains one of my proudest memories, and provides my old age with one of its most evocative “What If” speculations!
After Gilbert, I was lured to a newly organized company, Topper Toys, where Ronnie Saypol, a former Lionel executive was the second in command. The Topper assignment returned me to the Midwest, and in the spring snow of 1964 Mary Jane and I moved into our rented house in the suburbs if Minneapolis. Relocating to Minnesota proved to be an important and pleasant experience for our growing family, where our third child, Eric was born September 1964. The wonderful people and life-style we experienced in Minnesota are souvenirs of a marvelous period in the lives of the Masons.
Topper’s founder, and dynamic leader, was Henry Orenstein, a survivor of the Holocaust. Mr. Orenstein was tyrannical, persuasive, opinionated, possessed of great product instincts, and the kind of gambler necessary to the toy biz in the mid-sixties. Henry was probably the only genuine genius that I have ever personally encountered. But Topper Toys, as many other companies with charismatic founders flashed across the sky of our industry, flaming brightly, but briefly, before running out of steam and becoming a footnote in toy annals. My next association was to be with the biggest and best survivor of the Toy Wars, Mattel.
Toy Show 1967 marked my first with Mattel. The next four years with this growing giant toy maker was a great experience shared with great people, and exposed me to the most professional management group in my forty years selling toys. It also broadened my responsibilities to include selling to premier national retailers like K-Mart, Sears, etc. as well as managing a group of regional sales people. Those four years with Mattel were exciting and professionally fulfilling, if not immune from occasional sales setbacks. Mattel demanded long hours, and hard work, but it was fun. This remarkable company started in 1945 by Elliot & Ruth Handler in a Los Angeles garage, by 1967 was already an industry leader, propelled by a Marine Corps style of corporate esprit that has been a major component of their phenomenal success.
I chose, however, to leave this all behind in 1971 and accept a chance to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, when I joined Minneapolis based toy maker, Lakeside Toys, as National Sales Manager. This decision was uniquely influenced by a combination of personal and professional considerations. On one hand I was attracted to the challenge of a bigger sales job that included nation-wide responsibility for sales and marketing, and the opportunity to remain in Minnesota where I felt my family had a life-style advantage. But taking this fork in the road had to balance against something I had no way of knowing in 1971, and that is how Mattel was destined to survive and prosper, while Lakeside would be out of the toy business in less than ten years. Remaining with Mattel might have insured an even more lucrative career for my family and me, but that speculation can never be tested. So, I’ll be happy to settle for what is, and not what might have been.
When in 1975 Alex Hughes, an old toy associate and personal friend, invited me to leave Minnesota, and return to New Jersey as Sales Manager of his fledgling company, Janex Toys, once again I decided it was time for a change. Alex had a good little company, but after two years I made the emotional, and potentially foolish decision to leave. For the first time in my career, I planned a leap without having a place to land prearranged. But luck was with me because I soon found myself on an airplane for Hong Kong, the Sales Manager designate of LJN Toys.
LJN owner, Norman Lewis, introduced me to the Hong Kong trade as the new Sales Manager of LJN, soon to probably leave for a bigger, better, job with someone else! Actually, Norm was quite perceptive, because by January 1977 it was clear that nothing qualified as being “permanent” in the toy biz, and LJN in those days was still a small, struggling company with a problematic future.
But, as with many of life’s surprises, LJN was not to be an interim job, but one of my longest and most rewarding. I spent eight years as a salaried vice president of sales, and two additional years as an independent commission sales representative to their largest account, K-Mart. During that period I earned a very comfortable living, accumulating most of the money that became our retirement nest egg, and had my most spectacular year in 1981 when my salary and bonus checks were based upon 63 million dollars of LJN toys that I sold to K-Mart! From a small, opportunistic imitator, LJN grew into a major player in the character licensed, TV promotional toy business, achieving sales volumes in excess of 200 million dollars in the mid-eighties. But like so many promotional “high-flying” toy companies, LJN would be out of business entirely in the next few years.
The last chapters of my toy career were not as lucrative, or satisfying as I had hoped. By 1985 my sales representative business was flagging, and I decided to act out an old ambition to start a manufacturing company. Armed with what I thought was a good idea, I joined forces with Nick Underhill of California, and Henry Wu of Hong Kong to manufacture building block toys compatible with Lego Toys. Lego’s protective patents had expired, so we launched Tandem Toys as the economical alternative to the more expensive Lego blocks.
Tandem was organized and made ready for Toy Show in 1986, and we enjoyed a respectable first two years. But, the long-term indicators were not encouraging, as consumer and trade loyalty to the entrenched Lego brand proved insurmountable. Our acquisition of Creata, a small toy line that we hoped would offset our Tandem problems, proved to be another headache. With Creata we had to face the challenge of marketing low profit margin unbranded basic toys, a shrinking customer base, and ruthless cost competition. Things were not looking good!
These tough times were compounded by a turn of bad luck with my health. In Dec. 1989 clogged arteries required an immediate by-pass operation, so I spent New Year’s Eve 1990 at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital (NY) getting my plumbing repaired. This calamity occurred at the same time we were negotiating the wind-up of Tandem Toys, and without a qualified buyer we just closed our doors. It was the end of our shared business dreams, and the end of what had been my warm, long friendship with Nick Underhill. Once again I found myself looking for a job peddling toys, and getting on with my life...
So, a phone call to an old Hong Kong friend, C.K.Yeung, the Managing Director of Blue Box, a toy maker with factories in China and Singapore, became the beginning point for a new and final fling in the toy biz.
After some discussion with C.K., we agreed that I would become President of Blue Box, USA, and in that capacity would give direction to the management of Blue Box Toys in America. Additionally, I would train the owner’s son and son-in-law, both young men in their early thirties, to take over the reins of the company, as soon as practical. After three years, I did exactly that, and fully enjoyed my stint with this fine old Chinese company. We had our occasional culturally inspired differences of opinion, but on the whole I think we both benefited from our relationship. Blue Box Toys continues to survive in this rough and tumble industry, which is better than most of the R.I.P. companies that used to sign my paychecks!
From late 1993 until my official retirement, I had one more fling. This time I went outside toys for the first time. I formed a company called Banner Brite to manufacture decorative outdoor flags for the home. We built this business around a unique printing on cloth technique called sublimation. Sublimation imparted photo quality images on cloth that would be distinctive and impervious to fading, in the emerging novelty flag business. But like many good ideas, we didn’t have the financial resources to stay in the game long enough to absorb start-up costs, and get established. Thus ended my business saga, and in June 1996 Mary Jane and I packed our bags and headed south to sunny North Carolina, and retirement.
Now I spend my time stroking golf balls instead of toy buyers. When I look back upon it all, to answer the question if I’d do it all over again, I can only conclude that I would. Although I’m certain I could have achieved less, I’m not so sure I could have done more. I just know I tried my best, and I’m grateful that I have a loving wife, three wonderful children, four and a half beautiful grandkids, good friends, and a comfortable life to show for it.
Tryon, NC, May 2004
It's a Beautiful World...Sometimes
Its a Beautiful World Sometimes
Im almost 69 years old, and my wife & I just returned to our retirement condo in the piedmont town of Tryon, NC. after a two-week stay in NYC and beachcombing at the Jersey Shore. The historic colonial homes and stately trees of gracious Monmouth County, the manicured lawns and flower studded gardens of Sea Girt, the Shrewsbury River sunset seen from the Rumson shore, the astonishing scale and opulence of Manhattan, and the rolling, bucolic beauty of the Shenandoah Valley are a bouquet of memories, still fresh in our mind.
Our vacation objective was not so much to sight-see but to spend time with family & friends. Our visiting granddaughter, who lives in Asia, was at the top of that list and being with her was the highlight. Indeed, Sophias Hong Kong world of fancy restaurants, playgrounds wedged in between sky scrapers, jet airports, posh hotels, and urban sophistication is what made me think back upon the very different sights and sounds of the world of my youth.
It makes me wonder how our physical environment influences and shapes us as individuals. How the beauty, or lack of it, in those places where we were raised, worked and lived, impacts what we become. And since our early environment shapes who we are, isnt it natural to speculate how much of its shadows us later in life?
As a boy I remember a noxious weed tree with the unlikely name of Tree of Heaven. Its more prosaic name was stinking sumac so called for its offensive odor. It seemed to grow everywhere, and was robust enough to prosper in trash filled empty lots, railroad track shoulders, and foul smelling landfills. Its wild scruffy hardiness mocked the more fragile, planted ornamental plants struggling to grow in the tiny frontage gardens of crowded single & multiple family dwellings in urban north Jersey. The Tree of Heaven was no shady maple, Royal Oak, or graceful sycamore tree. Even to a kid with no knowledge of these things, it was a coarse offense to the eye with its skinny snake-like trunk & symmetrical leaves, their shiny blood red tips insulting the summer breeze.
My childhood recollections are not scarred so much by hard core ugliness as bored by utilitarian, aluminum siding blandness. In contrast, on the opposite bank of the Passaic River from where I lived, nestled in Essex Countys wooded hills, are the big houses, the big lots, the manicured lawns, the trees, and flower gardens. These are the tony villages with idyllic names like, Maplewood, Summit, Short Hills, Montclair and Glen Ridge; where, even today, stately homes are elegant, big, and old like the trees that line their streets.
And today, as then, the disparity is shocking between how pleasing to the eye are these villages and how offensive the nearby ugliness of the failed city of Newark and its equally ugly border towns. Business Professionals coming & going from their fancy homes to offices in New York & downtown Newark cant escape the graffiti stained wreckage and human despair. It stares back at them every morning and evening from the windows of their commuter train. They have no choice but to look at it straight on.
And what a sight it is: People and property decaying on the very doorsteps of their own privileged lives. One wonders what goes through the minds of the winners heading home to their martinis and mansions, as they transit through this miserable hell of the losers: One wonders will it ever change?
In a strange way, it reminds me of German villagers made to witness the disgusting nearby concentration camps by Allied liberators. But, that said, I dont buy the easy alibi that the comfortable suburbanite is exclusively responsible for this contemporary horror. What really alarms me is that for so long, this ugly scenario appears to be so implacably beyond the corrective will or imagination, of all of us.
Yes, our Harrison-Kearny-East Newark neighborhoods were squeezed together multi-family dwellings where the practical trumped the fancy. Yes, laundry hung on outdoor clotheslines flapping in the sun, like regimental flags, proudly proclaiming we were who we were; as in the lyrics of a popular Irish pub tune and if you dont like me just leave me alone.
But unlike the hopeless poor of today, we could still see the ladder to climb to a better life
The few blocks surrounding our neighborhoods marked the perimeters of life for youngsters and old timers alike. Apartments or rental flats, as we called them, were stacked cubicles of families living in boxy buildings, their halls perpetually smelling of ethnic cooking; their occupants certain of a better tomorrow for their children; if only they worked for it. And thered certainly be the devil to pay if they didnt.
Within walking distance, cheeky billboards blared seductive messages about beer that was less filling, or cigarettes that cowboys preferred to smoke. Noisy avenues of endless stores offered perpetual 50% off sales. Neon signs in windows that once looked out on the street from first floor apartments invited you to what was now a BAR, or a PIZZA PARLOR. An old truck tire painted white, encircling a small patch of garden flowers flirts with loveliness and fails.
Not so much ugly as lackluster, it was a time and place when even decent people flagrantly chucked litter anywhere it suited them. Mindless of how they were fouling their world. Like couldnt-care-less litterers, self destructive habits of heavy drinking and smoking brought early deaths to millions. That is, before we wised up to their suicidal consequences. These were some of the not-so-good old days, often obscured by sappy nostalgia.
But we still fondly called it home because to us it was home, however humble; as in the old song.
Though it may have been drab and physically unremarkable like many blue-collar enclaves, Kearny-Harrison-East Newark was spared epidemic crime & violence, and is fondly remembered by its emigrants and stay-at-homes as the place where they were given the reliable compass with which to steer through life. It was a place where refinement may have been a stranger, but so was victimhood. Where folks were hopeful, but not giddy, resigned but not cynical, proud but quiet in their accomplishments. And fearful, if not respectful, of the law. No nonsense, you might say, but always open to the ironic joke, the tragic comedy of human folly. In a way these were worldly people whose worldliness derived from experience & instinct more than schooling or travel.
Beautification was a luxury that had to take a back seat to the monotonous demands of life; getting an education, a job, and then eventually coming by the knowledge, time and money to indulge in that which is beautiful.
I think what we endured is to be respected but not pitied. Understood properly it was a passage; an ascendant passage that required deferring certain niceties, certain sophistications, until after taking care of business until dues are paid until the time was right.
So now, our return from our vacation reveals to my wife and me that our passage is completed. For us, loveliness is here and now, as it has always been for our children. We saw it when we moved to the Chicago suburbs back in the sixties, and later when we were transferred to magical Minnesota and then back to the scenic Jersey Shore in the seventies. And now in the new century, we live it at the feet of the Appalachian hills; the Blue Wall, as the Indians called it. Our lives are not stuck in the sooty landscape of an industrial world where so many still can only see life through the haze of smokestacks.
And so my hope for all people who must live and work in an unlovely world is that someday, as in the song, they will find a place for us a place that brings them beauty and peace. (Jack Mason, Tryon, NC, August 2000)
Drama at the Chinese Border
Here's the scene...while in NYC on business, my son Eric's Chinese wife Angie has taken her mom & dad, visiting Hong Kong from Shanghai, our grandkids 5 yr old Sophia, her 2 year old brother Rogan, and their Filipino nanny Juvy to nearest mainland Chinese border town Schenzhen for tour of area. They got there by train from Kowloon in HK. At the border they were surprised and disappointed that the grandkids were inadmissible for lack of special visas to their American passports. This is new ruling, and an unexpected obstacle that made it necessary for Juvy to return home with Sophia and Rogan while Angie & her parents decided to go on ahead.
Of course this proved very distressing to Sophia who cried buckets when she realized she & her brother were being separated from Mom & grandparents. Sophia pleaded to uniformed Chinese customs official with tears streaming down her pretty little Amerasian face, "but you must let me in, I AM CHINESE...don't you see..please..please.."
Sophia's plea in English fell on deaf ears of customs officer who probably didn't understand a word she was saying. It was then that her brother came to her rescue, hugging her and assuring not to worry, or cry. In return she wrapped her arms around Rogan, tearfully explaining to him, "But WE ARE CHINESE...why can't we go in?" the two of them consoling and comforting each other in a scene that would tug at any adult's heart..but to no avail when going up against intransigent Chinese bureaucracy.
So the story ends with Juvy & her two little charges boarding the train back to Kowloon, a visit to China denied because of red-tape... waving a sad goodbye to an experience they'll probably long remember.
Aug 14, 2004
My Cousin Jimmy Finn
My old Kearny pal, Bill Kinney was a good friend of my cousin, Jimmy Finn. Bill sent me this letter copy from 1958 he discovered in some old papers. It speaks to Jim's efforts to get a job in LA, and reflects how hard-up he was at the time, and how he sought his friends help. I think it conveys an innocence as well as an outlook on life that was characteristic of our generation.
Feb. 28, 1958
It's Friday evening and I'm just now relaxing after two whirlwind
days of job hunting in Los Angeles. Naturally I spent most of my time
storming employment agencies. Many, or rather, most of them told of
discouraging outlooks, but some seemed fairly optimistic. None of them had
immediate openings that I would even remotely fit into. I'm to check back
with a few first thing Monday morning. I'll also begin Monday to call on the
big Insurance companies (with a song and dance about actually being
interested in insurance, economics, etc.) and I'll make some phone calls to
some of the outlying districts. I'm even supposed to file for unemployment
compensation Monday afternoon. I may do that if I'm allowed to after
voluntarily leaving a job. I even saw an ad in the papers for dancing
instructor trainees. I'm ready for anything.
Financially, I'm alright for a few days. When I first arrived my
only choice was the Y.M.C.A., but now I've found a hotel room for eight
dollars a week. And it's not too bad either.
However, it would really make things a little more comfortable (I
could eat) if you could contact George ($5.00) and Ed Murphy ($10.00)
and ask them to send as "SPEEDILY" as possible
the money they owe me. In case they can't recall it was New Years Eve when
they borrowed it. I kind of feel as if I'm really stooping now but sometimes
there is no other way. I just hope that they remember borrowing it. If I can
get that money by Tues or Wednesday morning I'll be set for all next week. I
feel sort of confident that something will turn up by then.
You know the night I got the fifty you sent I had six pennies left
in my pocket and I'd had a half a box of "Cheese-Its" for supper. After I got
the money I could hardly walk on the ground. Money really isn't the most
important thing in life is it?
The address to send to is on the envelope. I'll write again when
something happens or doesn't happen.
AMAH, AS IN "MAMMA"
Amah is the Hong Kong Chinese word for nanny, and coincidentally sounds like the affectionate English vernacular for mother. And well it should, because these Filipino girls are the surrogate mammas to almost all the children of Hong Kongs manager class. During the day theyre everywhere, pushing strollers or carrying little kids that are clearly not their own. In the afternoon these little brown women migrate to opulent high-rises to bed their privaleged charges down for a nap while they set about preparing dinner for the real Mommies and Daddies who are still only part way through their ten-hour day at the office.
Over the thirty years I traveled to Hong Kong on business, amahs were just a part of the landscape to me, like the famous skyline, or the old Chinese junks in the harbor. That is, until recently, when Mary Jane and I spent twenty hours on an airplane in order to be with my sons family and their two Filipino amahs, Eva and Cora. During our wonderful Christmas 2002 reunion with Eric, his Chinese born wife Angie and our two grandchildren, we stayed at their deluxe 28th floor apartment on Hong Kong Island--perched high on the hill overlooking Central, the downtown cluster of glass & steel skyscrapers. It was a grandparents dream, delightful beyond our expectation. And there it was we had a chance to learn more about Eva and Cora, and the 150,000 other amahs that live and work in HK.
At the English language Sunday mass, from the back of the church the view was dominated by little raven haired girls whose Filipino accents gave a unique flavor to prayer recitations and the singing that rose from the choir. Girls in modest jeans and Hello Kitty sweaters--helpers, as they are sometimes calledthey are a large part of the local Catholic community. An amah may leave family and homeland behind to seek a better life, but she brings her Faith with her.
An amahs main responsibility are the children, and from observing the loving care Eva and Cora lavished upon our grandkids, it was plain that this was more than just a job to them. But looking after children is only part of what amahs do. They cook, clean, shop for food, do the laundry, run errands and even sometimes wash the family car. They not only spend all their waking hours doing these chores; they even tend to babies crying in the middle of the night. And for all this their government mandated minimum paycheck is U.S. $450 per month, including room and board, or about what it costs to keep a horse in Polk County. From these paychecks, modest by our standards, they send so much money home that it has become a significant chunk of income for the sagging Philippine economy.
After a six-day workweek, Sunday is the traditional day off. A day an amah is free to phone her own children and family back in the Philippines, children and family she might not see for a year or more. Its a day when thousands of amahs flock to Central to meet up with other nannies, and particularly those from their hometown. There they have urban picnics on the sidewalks, play cards and giggle gossip with their friends. Its quite a sight to see, and watching them one wonders how people with so little could enjoy life so much. My guess is that you would first have to understand the boggling poverty that they have escaped, temporarily at least. You would have to salute their remarkable courage to play the hand dealt them, instead of succumbing to despair and self-pity. For me, their noble example is something Im just now coming to appreciate, but better late than never.
Jack Mason, Feb 12, 2003
JACK ON BIRDIE HILL'S JIM
Jacks Exmoor, England, Horse Vacation
In September 1992 I traveled to western England to take riding instruction, and fox hunt with Mr. Berdie Hill, and his son Tony. I stayed with Tony & his wife Stephanie at their ancestral home called Bremridge Manor. Riding instruction was taken at Berdies farm, Great Rapscott Manor. Both Berdie and his son have been prominent figures in the international horse world. A television tape-records my training and fox hunting with Berdie Hill, Master of Foxhounds, Dulverton Hunt of Exmoor.
BREMRIDGE MANOR HISTORY
Owned originally by Brem family, direct descendants of William the Conqueror.
In 1170 Bremridge was home to Mr. DeTracy, one of the three knights who murdered Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury
In his remaining years, DeTracy built three churches as penance for his part in the murder of Beckett.
Original building burnt down, and rebuilt in 1600s by Sir John Dodderidge Hayes.
Coat of Arms on front of house those of Judge Jeffries.
The new house built on original ruins, includes 800 acres.
BERDIE HILL RESUME
As young man rode gymkanas and did flapper (pony) racing. Very dangerous rides over banks.
Berdie was first British civilian accepted for Olympics.
On British Olympic 1952 team (Helsinki) Won bronze medal.
At 1956 Olympics (Stockholm) Won gold medal.
Trained British team that won world championship in Punchestown, Ireland.
Trained British team that won gold in Mexico City Olympics.
Trained team that went to Munich Olympics.
Rode in Rome Olympics.
Trained Princess Anne and Mark Phillips
Trained Mexican Olympic team for Madrid Olympics.
I'm a paraTONY HILL RESUME
Pony Club, competing British Championgraph.
Show Jumping Stonleigh/Hickstead champion.
TONY HILL RESUME (Cont)
At age 15, youngest English eventing rider to win European bronze medal.
Age 16 rode point-to-point racing and steeplechase. Won two National S.C. championships.
At 17 won gold on team riding for Britain in European (Jr.) Championships. Took individual silver medal.
Competed all over Britain, and rode in Babington Horse Trials at age 18.
At age 19, fell & broke back at 3 day event in Osberton.
Rode with Princess Anne.
Mary Jane's Mother
The earliest memory of my Mother was her on the phone in the living room while I sat in a swing between the living room and the sunparlor. This was a canvas contraption and I remember it had colored beads on the bar that held me in the seat. It hung from hooks inserted into the top of the double doorframe. I remember thinking how long was I going to be in this swing? She was talking but had her eye on me. It wasnt an unpleasant experience, but I think I was getting bored or nauseous from the swinging. It was comforting to see her and hear her voice. I am sure she was not on the phone long because that was not her style.
What I cannot remember is how old I was. Certainly not 4 years, that would be too old to be in that swing. It seems it was a swing for toddlers, so maybe I was 2 to 3 years old. Even 3 seems a little old as I remember the swing. I can picture it as if I had seen it yesterday. They say that you do not remember things before the age 3. I do not know. Its so clear and then it is vague.
What is not vague is my 4th birthday. It was a special moment between my Mom and me.
It was a small celebration, my 2 sisters, Anne and Eileen, my Dad and my Godmother, Aunt Marie (not really my Aunt) I had had a bath, and Mother dressed me in a beautiful yellow dress, with a large white collar, a dress I really loved because it had been my sisters dress so I had seen it on many occasions. I was very happy to wear it. Being the 3rd of 3 girls one always knew what was coming up in the wardrobe department. My Mom took me into my parents bedroom, went to the top drawer of my Fathers chifferobe and took out a small box.
In it was a small box and when opened displayed a gold locket and chain, so small, not as big as my pinky. It had my initials engraved on it....mjh. What I really remember was the closeness I felt to her as I turned and she put it around my neck. Her body was next to mine, there was a nice clean odor about her and I could hear the voices downstairs. I felt like I was in heaven and going to be presented to a group of angels. There are some curious aspects to this story. This was the depression, we were not wealthy people. I know now that we were just getting by. My sisters and I each had a gold locket. One was a heart, one was an oval and mine was a diamond shape. They were all engraved. Someone must have given them to us.
My parents had neither the money nor the inclination for such things. I still have the locket
My mother was not a physical person. I do not remember her ever hugging me, kissing me etc. I do remember sweet conversations and very practical solutions to problems, but this closeness on my 4th birthday stands out as a warm and tender moments. I knew she loved me. We descended the stairs together and the birthday girl had arrived. Isnt that a pleasant memory?
Mom was ahead of her time in the nutrition field. I used to come home from Kindergarten at lunchtime and she would be listening to Victor H. Linlard(on the radio)...you are what you eat! Eating was a problem for me; I just did not like it. She was very conscious of balanced meals, although I do not think she was crazy about cooking (like I am today). We went through jars of wheatgerm (she would put it on the top of pudding and tell us it was nuts), bottles of cod liver oil and lots of whole-wheat bread. Once a week we had liver! Later years it was Carlton Fredericks, again on the radio, giving all sorts of tips on the right way to eat. Still later when t.v. appeared I would come home and she would be exercising with Jack LaLanne
A Gloomy Outlook
Feb 20, 2003
That day in the summer of '45 when we dropped THE bomb on Japan changed everything, and that reality is just now coming home to roost. Prior to the "atomic age" it was arguable that the U.S. could pursue a live-and-let-live policy re. the many countries, big & small, who were ruled by tyrants. In those halcyon days it really wasn't our business and didn't really jeopardize our own security. But those days are gone forever, and still there are those who cling to the folly that all we have to do is give peace a chance, or more accurately, give the status quo a chance. Then came 9/11. Since then, it would be dangerously reckless to dither away our national security relying exclusively on dialogue and diplomacy or the effete tinhorn Mafia we call the UN. The world today holds out only two possibilities. Preempt and kill our enemies; or sit back and be killed by them. I know that's an apocalyptic and some might say unsophisticated analysis, but like it or not, that's where the evidence points; promote democracy or perish. All the braying about how we got ourselves into this mess, or how we should subordinate ourselves to the UN, or how it might go away if we only stay home and sing Kumbaya will be drowned out by the screams of the victims of the next 9/11 catastrophe. When JFK uttered the famous words (below) the annihilation of our country wasn't a present danger, so they echoed good intentions more than hard policy. But now when we are looking into the abyss his words become a prophetic imperative.
We will bear any burden, pay any price, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty."
The new world reality is a division, a sharp split, between the civilized world on one side and those who comprise, or refuse to thwart, the uncivilized world.
MY BROTHER FRANCIS AND MY SISTER CATHERINE
Catherine Korec Mason
When my mother died in early seventies, she left me a letter. In that letter was a statement of her bank account balance of $600. It also informed me that it was her wish that my sister Catherine be given our Kearny house and the $600 my mother still had deposited in the bank; not to be shared, but hers alone. In my mother's direct way of thinking, I was well off and much more squared away in my own life than my sister...and although that simple truth was clear to me my brother was not so sanguine and he was quietly disappointed. In the long run, however, the house inheritance was what made Catherine's life in Sterling possible...and as good an ending as there ever was for her & what my mother wanted for her...ng your own content. You can change my font, size, line height, color and more by highlighting part of me and selecting the options from the toolbar.
A TALE OF TWO CULTURES
Well describes the America of 2004, and the polarization that characterized the presidential fiasco in 2000. The USA TODAY blue and red map of our nation, geographically locates Liberal America and Conservative America, displaying with stunning clarity where the two ideological cultures live. My guess is that those colors are going to deepen in intensity before they realign, or fade away. Multi-Culturism, for good or ill, is certainly here.
I believe it also signals a new social-political phenomenon where bitter partisanship is pushing us ever deeper into the danger zone of disunity during time of war. It may even compare to the soul wrenching division that plagued the United States in Lincolns time.
Now, I know some people will say Im an alarmist. Im over the top! Preposterous! Weve seen it all before, and survived, etc. I hope theyre right, and the future proves me wrong.
But compelling questions persist. Which Culture should prevail? Which one shouldnt? Is there a middle ground? Those are, depending on your point of view, the traditional kinds of arguments weve had in the past. But in the current environment we can no longer pin our hopes on civil discourse, bi-partisanship and compromise. This new schism is so absent good faith, so far beyond reason, it can only drown us all in a sea of bile. And if the partisan gridlock of the past ten years doesnt justify this pessimism, then what does?
The values of Liberal Culture are writ large on the rock of secular Humanism, government largesse, well regulated liberties and moral relativism. Conservative Culture is unmovable in its commitment to individual responsibility and freedom, respect for religious tradition, moral absolutes, and minimal government intrusion. Liberals dwell on Americas shortcomings, Conservatives on Americas nobility. So, our dilemma boils down to two irreconcilable views of the world. Not only do we not get along, it looks very much like we cant get along anymore than the mongoose can get along with the snake.
Where that will take us is hard to say, but the current scenario mocks the notion that moderation will save the day. In the real world Moderation is sneered at as just wimpy straddling that betrays principle for expediency, and is detested by both Cultures. Just ask Joe Lieberman and John McCain. The only fans of moderation are the folks in the biased media, and then only if the moderates happen to be Republicans.
Maybe Cultures, like people, have to divorce when they reach a certain level of incompatibility, although Im not personally ready for that kind of solution in America. I do find it ironic, however, that Al Gore may have been lucky to lose the last election, and I certainly dont envy President Bush having to suffer his way through a campaign of take no prisoners in 2004. I also remember that back in 96 when Pat Buchanan first defined this struggle as the Culture War he was scorned and reviled by both parties. But it looks now like maybe he was right, after all.
Jack Mason, Feb 10, 2004
THE TOWN THAT BILLY SUNDAY DID SHUT DOWN
THE GREAT AUDITORIUM, OCEAN GROVE, NJ
Ever since the early fifties when I first mingled amongst the Christian pilgrims summering in Ocean Grove, N.J., I recollect being surprised to hear Protestants with Brooklyn accents. It just seemed out of whack with my sense of who belongs where in this crazy world. In my mind Protestants were supposed to have more sophisticated manners & speech habits than one would find in Brooklyn, with its vernacular and cultural rough edges. But there they were, middle class Methodist disciples of King James, congregating in Billy Sundays Ocean Grove for a Revival Camptown Meeting; speaking not in tongues but like Jimmy Cagney. This was a religious flock that was a good fit in the old traditional seashore town famous for its Victorian gingerbread architecture a town so strict in its adherence to the old ways that neon honky-tonks were non-existent, and on Sundays cars were forbidden on its streets: A town known as Gods Square Mile. At least thats the way I remember it.
But since I haven't walked the Pilgrims Path circling the Camptown in many years, I have to wonder if those improbable Archie Bunker speech patterns can still be heard drifting out from the bungalows clinging to the sides of the Auditorium .temporary canvas lean-tos, these collapsible domiciles splay out from the giant auditorium like legs on a gargantuan mosquito their colorful candy striped canvas roofs and sides held up by whitewashed poles standing in peculiar contrast to the solemnity of Revival.
Im also wondering if these people still descend on Ocean Grove, if maybe they moved to another location, or if their young people continue to cling to the old Rugged Cross. I worry that in todays world their faith almost certainly is an object of Politically Correct hostility that would have been unthinkable back in the fifties.
In those days, on a balmy summer eve, the visiting pilgrims could be seen streaming to the Auditorium to amen the sermonizing of a prominent preacher, or to be transported back in time by the saccharine music of an umpteenth generation Glen Miller Band one couldnt help but overhear Bensonhurst in the eager chatter of children & the clipped responses of their parents. But, apart from their New York accents, these folks struck me as American as Norman Rockwell Gothics. At the end of a religious service or musical performance, young families abuzz with happy talk and ice cream cone treats, return to the buttery light glowing from inside their vacation homes-away-from-home.
The day after Labor Day the pilgrims and their Christian paraphernalia vanish like migrating birds. The last tent disassembled, the last hymn sung, the Camptowners drive out the Ocean Grove gates... heading back to the big Cities from which they came. Ocean Grove once again is returned to its year-round yuppies. At least that's the way I remember it.
All of this comes back to me now when I visit my daughter, when once again Im exposed to the verbal cacophony of today's New York. Yes, there's still lots of toity-toid" filling the streets and the formerly smoke choked Irish Bars of the Upper West Side...but more & more the old "Dead End Kid" dialect is giving way to strange new lingoes like rata-tat-tat Hispanic, sophisticated European, atonal Cantonese, and the pleasant sing-song banter of turbaned Pakistanis to name but a few. Whether it's "East side, West side, or all around the Town" it's just unusual nowadays to hear anything else.
In the very near future, it would be my guess that the Big Apple will be characterized not by familiar American regional speech patterns, but by the polyglot sounds of our brave new Global World... with New York City at it's epicenter. Perhaps a very much modified or new language will evolve? The City has always been a home to innovation, as well as millions of immigrants who had to learn English in order to survive. But learn, and survive they did. First generation parents may have never completely masked old-country influences in their speech, but their children grew up to speak such standard English, as to make a second generation Pole indistinguishable from a second generation Vietnamese, indistinguishable from a 5th generation American living in Des Moines, Iowa. Now all that may be changing, as the melting pot surrenders to multiculturalism.
The evolving replacement traditions are almost certain to alter future American culture, but how much no one knows. In a very real sense this transformation of the way we use words may just be the first step in the morphing of New Yorkers into citizens of the world. And whether this is good, or bad, is beside the point. It will happen because nothing can stop it, nothing is forever...and it all came to mind because I traveled back through my own sentimental memories ...to those Ocean Grove people & sounds I saw & heard as a young man...people and sounds that, if they havent already, may soon become the ghosts of Ocean Grove...
Jack Mason, Nov 21, 2005
My Dad and I, October, 1933
As I begin to write a remembrance of my father I cant help but suspect that he would be surprised, amused, and even a bit embarrassed by the vanity of a memoir about himself. His modesty would probably make him blush at the very idea! That was my dad. But his story deserves telling for those of us who knew and loved him, and for those in our family who can never know this very good and decent man.
John Mason was born October 6, 1893, in an era that witnessed the invention of motion pictures, and the early stirrings of womans suffrage. He died May 4, 1963, the year that Martin Luther King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech, and the 15th anniversary of the Emmy awards; 37 years before his own granddaughter, Ellen Mason, would be one of its proud recipients. He had a grammar school education, augmented by correspondence courses in stationary engineering that qualified him to operate the huge pumps processing sewerage for the 13 communities in the Passaic Valley region of northern New Jersey. This became his career occupation after earlier stints at Clarks linen thread mill, and Shickhaus meat processors. It provided our family with a modest but steady income, and a comfortable middle class lifestyle that during the Depression years was a considerable accomplishment. At the time, my brother, sister, and I took for granted the stability in our lives that many other kids of our generation did not enjoy.
Kearny New Jersey was where my father was born, and where he died, except for his Over There years in France during WWI. His three children were also born & raised in Kearny, but my dads growing up in the Kearny of the late 1800s and early 1900s was in many ways much different. His formative years were lived in a society that did not encourage upward mobility aspirations in young people of his class. This galvanized in my parents the conviction that their children must not let these constraints limit what we could accomplish in our lives. So he and my mother provided the inspiration and confidence that we could go as far as hard work and our abilities would take us. No longer a luxury, education was now an imperative, and success its reward.
Johnny Mason had two sisters and one brother. Martha and Annie, and brother Robert (Buck) were all younger than Johnny. I dont know much about their growing up except that my Belfast immigrant grandfather, also named John, was a bit of an eccentric, preferring to live in Manhattan and visit wife and family ten miles away in New Jersey when it suited him. It seems that Grandpa had a fascination with the theatre and theatrical people, and spent a lot of time attending vaudeville performances and living up to a reputation as a stage door Johnny. He supported his wife and kids by selling low cost life insurance, mainly to Irish greenhorns, employing blarney, booze, and a song on his fiddle as a lubricant to sales.
His wife Anne and her lady friend, Aunt Kate, occasionally visited Gramps in the Big Apple. Legend has it that the ladies were rebuffed by the room clerk at Grampas boarding house when my grandmother announced she was Johnny Masons wife. The haughty clerk sniffed that all visiting ladies claim him as their husband! The desk attendant was just trying to be funny, but he bought a whole lot of grief for the old man, when Grandma and Aunt Kate took the room clerk at his word and left in a tizzy!
My knowledge of my dads father is very sketchy. He was born in Ireland circa 1868, and came to America around 1885. In Belfast he was somehow connected to the tobacco business in a town, or district of Belfast, called Ligonier. He met my grandmother, also an immigrant from Ireland, after coming to the U.S. He converted to Catholicism. They married. On their wedding night he got drunk and threw the bed out the window of their row house flat on Coopers Block. A pamphlet advertising a reunion of Coopers Block residents in the 20s noted that fiddle music was to be performed by Johnny Mason. So I guess he was also a musician of sorts. He died before I was born, but I dont know exactly where, or when. In an Edwardian sepiatone photo that includes my eighteen-year old father and his sixteen-year old brother, Gramps looks like a Duke with his two princely sons at his side, even though they probably qualified as shanty Irish in the dawn of the last century. America did not yet celebrate multiculturalism.
I regret that my knowledge of my paternal grandmother, Anne Conlon Mason, is a blank page and this account, sad to say, will always be less than complete without her story. Now, back to dad..
My father has been dead for nearly forty years, so my memory of his physical appearance is stuck in that time shortly before he died.
Since Im now close to his age when he passed away, I see in us the appearance similarities you might expect from father and son. But dad didnt always sport a robust belly and thinning white hair. Earlier pictures remind me that he once was much more athletically built, with refined features and a full head of dark brown hair accented by dark eyebrows. Even in his later years I know he was physically strong but not from a life of manual labor. He was one of those men that simply had a natural gift of muscular strength. At 5ft 8inches he was not tall, but typical for his generation.
World War I was a major event in my fathers life. He felt passionate enough about resisting the Hun that he flirted with the idea of enlisting in the Canadian Army before the U.S. decided to come into the war. He even traveled to Detroit where Windsor, Canada, is just on the other side of town to join up. But with America finally entering the fray, he returned to enlist in the U.S.Army 29th Blue and Gray Division and served as an infantry corporal in France during the Meuse Argonne Campaign.
When I was old enough to understand he showed me his army diary, and although this little book got lost somewhere along the way, I vividly remember his neatly written notes on the detailed nomenclature of French heavy weapons used by the Yanks. Also the doughboys humorous paraphrase of The Lords Prayer . Our Father who art in Washington, give us this day our back pay, etc. etc. He told me the highlight of his time in France was seeing General Black Jack Pershing up close, when Corporal Johnny had to have a tooth removed in the Headquarters area. The low point occurred when an army mule billeted with him on a 40/8 (40 men & 8 mules ) troop transport train died during the night, but not until the poor beast rolled over on my sleeping dad. His buddies teased young Johnny that he caused the mules demise and being pinned down by his carcass was his punishment! Although he never wore his devotion to America on his sleeve, my father was a quiet patriot, and Im sure he took pride in the 1950s when his two sons donned the uniform of our country.
Dad married Catherine Rogan of Harrison, NJ, in 1932. Shortly after their Manhattan wedding they bought our 3 family house at 12 Rose Street in Kearny. Since we lived in tight quarters, our five room flat of less than 1000 square feet didnt allow for much individual privacy. With two quarrelsome pre-teen sons, a young daughter that needed attention, and a highly vocal wife refereeing all of this, my father created an escape for himself in the cellar. In this basement haven dominated by three coal-fired furnaces, he built his retreat.
It shined bright from the glossy green and gray paint that covered its walls and floor. It included an old sofa, for rest and recuperation when he had a few too many. The requisite tools, paint cans, workbench, and shelves to store the paraphernalia of our life filled out the picture. And when my mom, exasperated by our squabbling, called for reinforcements by shouting down the cellar stairs, Jaaaackkk.. we knew it was time to straighten up and flyright! (Dads brother & sisters called him Johnny, but my mom and all their other friends knew him as Jack.)
My mother usually meted out punishment for our misbehavior, and bouncing a wooden coat hanger on my noggin was one of her favorites. Dad usually refrained from the corporal discipline chores, because I think he feared his own strength. I remembered his admonition to my mother about using the coat hanger, and words that counseled, Kate, you could knock him silly with that thing. So, with my fathers warning clearly in mind, when my next walloping took place, I fell to the floor feigning an epileptic fit. This shocked and frightened my mother, ceased the coat hanger bopping, and sent her screaming down to Shangri-la, Jack, Come Quick! I think Ive knocked him silly. Lumbering up the stairs his panicked advice was to,Quick, into the shower with him..I told you so! And off I went.
Once in the shower, I blew my cover and exploded in triumphant boyish laughter. My timing was perfect because my parents were so relieved, that after a moments hesitation they joined in my jubilant howling. This was the last time I remember the coat hanger thumping, and just when I was actually getting to enjoy it! I must be growing up.
Life with father wasnt always tumultuous. There were those quiet moments that recall dad sipping his quart of Schaefer beer at the kitchen table while reading the Newark Evening News. At the nearby stove, my mother preparing dinner requests an occasional sip from dads glass. Dad gives his gracious OK, but discreetly keeps a watchful eye on her consumption of his beloved brew. And the after dinner naps he would take on the lumpy living room couch, with the radio tuned to Joe Picas flashy piano playing, coming live from the Isle of Capri in Lyndhurst.
On Sunday mornings it was a treat to listen to gossipy exchanges with my mothers visiting brothers, Uncle Jimmy Rogan and Uncle Dinny Rogan when they would come up the line from Harrison to visit. Dad also delighted in hearing my music teacher, Mr. George Milano, tell tales about entertaining the hoi-polois of New Jersey high society. Pop would listen, fascinated by Mr. Milanos recounting of elegant black tie parties where the scotch flowed like water. Heady stuff in working class Kearny.
Of all my obligations, playing the accordion and piano was the highest on my fathers list. He would place a wind-up alarm clock on the piano, lay down on the couch and promptly fall asleep. While he dozed I was expected to put in one hour of practice, but I soon learned that his snoring was my signal to advance the clock and escape doing the full hour. When he got wise to my shenanigans he purchased his first TIMEX wristwatch, making it necessary for me to practice without parole. At the time this was painful and a rare source of conflict between us. But as an adult, I look back upon this discipline as one of my fathers most valued gifts.
Summers highlight arrived when all of us would pile into the gray 1938 Ford and head south for Seaside Heights. It usually meant a vacation week or two of non-stop action, living in a cramped musty bungalow a few blocks from the crowded beach, glitzy boardwalk concessions, and feed-your-face stands.
Upon arrival, pumped with youthful excitement, we would scramble into our little rented house, staking out claims to sleeping areas, while Mom lugged in bed linens, pots & pans, and food supplies. Before the Ford had a chance to cool down, Dad sauntered over to the Gangplank Bar and Grill to slake his thirst.
Our settling in completed my brother and I would be given some money by Mom to spend on the rides and boardwalk amusements. My sister Catherine was only 4 years old, so she remained back at the bungalow. Moms allowance was always less than we needed; but not to worry, I always had a plan to get us more. After we allowed sufficient time for Dad to get relaxed at the Gangplank, we would strike. While my 9-year-old brother Francis waited outside, I entered that noisy, sudsy palace to prevail upon my tractable Pop for more money. This always produced the two bits we needed to play the skee-ball game, feed pennies into the arcade amusements, buy an apple on a stick, or a thrill ride ticket.
In those days we had no awareness of elite, self-conscious beach resorts like Deal, Spring Lake, or Sea Girt. Our seashore paradise was saucy Seaside Heights, a blue collar Riviera sandwiched between the crashing Atlantic Ocean and choppy Barnegat Bay.
Carousel calliope melodies merged with delicious smells of seaspray, sausage & peppers, saltwater taffy, and brackish seaweed. Neon signs and pitchmen hawked all kinds of fun. Brassy music blared from the raucous Chatterbox boardwalk bar. This was the summer playground of the forties for vacationers from the Garden State who arrived with the Bayonne whites and departed looking like boiled lobsters. A martini and dinner jacket town it wasnt, but Seaside Heights left us as happy as the giant belly laughing fat lady that advertised the Fun House. Ha-ha, Ho-ho!
Packing up to leave and heading north on primitive roads that predated the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, made for a grueling 80 mile bumper to bumper return trip to Kearny. My father refreshed and tanned from his week of fishing on headboats, and telling tall tales about his catch to newfound buddies at the Gangplank, was ready to go home. He drove our floor shifting car in this frustrating stop and go traffic with calm resignation, while us kids slept until the old gray Ford came to a stop at 12 Rose Street. Now it was back to the real world.
One aspect of the real world was my fathers shift work. This meant that his work rotated the clock in shifts of 9-5, 4-12, and 12-8. Other than the 9-5 shift required sleeping during the day, and family accommodation to dads need for quiet. As kids we were not very good at muting ourselves so my father, although he seldom complained, probably never enjoyed a good sleep when he worked these schedules. This was his lot for the 30 years he worked for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission.
Dad was a Democrat. It was expected of him. But he made it clear to me that in the privacy of the voting booth he would do what he thought was right. This didnt mean he was a closet Republican, but it did hint at his independent spirit. The thrust of New Deal politics favored his kind, but my father was leery of blind loyalty to any ideology. I know, for example, he very much admired a Coopers Block alumnus, Republican congressman Fred Hartley, and may have even voted for him. Heretical as this was in those days, this would have been the exception and not the rule in his politics. Later in life I became a passionate Conservative and it didnt seem to disappoint him. An old line Democrat, my dad was firmly opposed to discrimination and injustice, but my guess is that he would have been uncomfortable with the modern party of FDR, and mortified by its most recent occupant of the White House.
Jack and Kate had a relationship that was typical of their generation. They delivered on their commitment for one another and for their family, by simply always being there. There were very few affectionate displays or romantic exchanges. Just the unspoken but steady reliability of people who love by doing, not talking. It wasnt sentimental, but it was palpable, and as children we knew it was the genuine article; undramatic, unqualified love.
Like all men, my father had his dark cave where his mistakes and regrets are hidden. I chose not to go there because I have my own cave, and what my father was is vastly more worthy of memory, than what he was not. He gave me life and he gave me the wonderful example of how even an untutored man can achieve dignity. He prepared me for having my own family. He trained me to deal with mistakes that I was bound to make, and did make. He taught me that failure is no excuse for quitting, and neither is success. And finally, the lyrics of a song from the sixties express how much I miss him. Oh my Papa, to me he was so wonderful.. to me he was so grand. Thanks dad!
Jack Mason, June, 2001
PS 4/13/07 My father's father was also John Mason, an immigrant from Belfast (Ligonnier) Ireland. He died in NYC of mastoid infection, details unknown. He was stationery engineer in NY hotel, and later worked for Metropolitan Insurance Co. He had a brother, Peter. When he died he was buried from home on Johnston Ave in Kearny, approx 1934-35 at age 66 which dates his birth at approx 1868. He is buried in Holy Cross cemetary, North Arlington, NJ. It is also noted he may have had heart disease. He married in the U.S. an Irish immigrant Anna Conlon. She worked at Clark's linen thread mill in Kearny, and had a brother who was a constable in Nova Scotia. She had one sister, name unknown and was noted to be a converted Roman catholic. My mother's father was John Joseph Rogan. He had no family but is also thought to have immigrated to the U.S. from Connet Ireland. He was a construction laborer for Shanley Construction Co. He married Anna Phelan, an Irish immigrant from Queens County Ireland. . She was a housekeeper for Riordan family, a Harrison butcher, and also for Fr. Rongetti of St. Anthony's RC church, in East Newark, NJ. Anna Phelan had 5 brothers and 2 sisters. John Rogan died in 1921 of heart disease and in buried in Holy Sepulcher cemetary, Newark, NJ. Anna Phelan Rogan died of peronitis in 1931 following a stomach operation. She is buried in Holy Cross cemetary in North Arlington, NJ.
The Hudson Movie House
CLOSED UNTIL BETTER MOVIES ARE AVAILABLE
The recent closing of our movie house reminded me of happier days in 1943 when I was a ten-year old boy growing up in Kearny, a working class town in northern New Jersey. On Saturday afternoons, my friends and I would line up at the box office of our local theatre, the Hudson, to plunk down a dime to see the double feature picture show.
Ten cents bought a ticket to two full-length movies plus what we called “Short Subjects”. These were novelty films that appeared in between the main attractions, to keep antsy kids in their seats while the main projector was being rewound. They reported News of the War Effort and sports. They tickled us with animated cartoon characters and zany documentaries that ended with a silly looking man saying, “Peeples is der fonniest uff munnkies”? And they kept us on the edge of our seats with spellbinding serials that would evoke a chorus of loud groans when the cliffhanger announced, “to be continued”!
Once inside this musty palace, boys in mackinaw coats with zipper hoods and wooly “knickers”, and girls in dresses and patent leather Mary Jane shoes, would scramble for seats near their pals. Pre-teen kids full of juvenile heebie jeebies filled the house with their noisy antics. The bedlam subsided only when the whirring sound of the projector, accompanied by martial music and a lowering of the lights, signaled the adventure that was coming to life on the screen hidden behind the Hudson’s frayed velvet curtains. As a creaky mechanism parted them, the empty white space filled with fantastic black and white enchantment. We cheered larger than life heroes and booed despicable villains as we were transported to the magical worlds of…
Vengeful cowboys, frightful monsters, heroic GIs, swashbuckling pirates, sardonic private eyes, slapstick comics, and Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland back yard musical shows. These were typical themes of flicks that tugged our emotions, fired our grade school imaginations, and informed our 1940s view of the world. When “THE END” filled the screen, fantasy over, we hooted our approval, the house lights came up, and we noisily filed out of the Hudson. Back on the streets of Kearny, our senses and dilated pupils strained to get back in tune with the sights and sounds of the real world.
With energy possessed only by youngsters, and inspired by our day at the picture show, we headed for home with big smiles and big appetites. Along the way we showed off our raucous imitations of Errol Flynn, Lou Costello, or the Lone Ranger… En Guarde! Aaaayyy Abbbott! Hi Yo Silver! Hi Mom. Whats for dinner?
In those days, theatre security was the job of a Hudson employee known to us all as Gus the Cop. Occasionally some scofflaw kid would buy a ticket, and after gaining entrance, surreptitiously open the EXIT door to sneak in non-paying buddies. A reckless and bold enterprise, indeed, because Gus the Cop almost always managed to intercept the invaders. The action would begin the moment he spotted daylight seeping through the opened metal EXIT door into the darkened theatre, confirming another daring break in. I can still see old Gus roaring and thundering down the aisle in pursuit of pint sized “perps” fleeing into the anonymity of the Hudson’s dim shadows, egged on by an audience of jeering adolescent sympathizers.
Gus was an imposing, uniformed policeman, who looked the part even though the Hudson was his only beat. He was not an official member of the Kearny police force, and he carried neither stick nor gun. But he took his job as seriously as J. Edgar Hoover, himself. He guarded the EXIT doors repelling interlopers with a vigor that was almost as famous as his patrol of the lavatory. When a youthful James Cagney wannabe tried to play the tough guy, smoking cigarettes with his gang in the Men’s Room, he had better be prepared for a “collar” from Gus. And if caught more than once, it would mark him as a “two-time loser” guaranteeing that Gus would troop him all the way home by the scruff of the neck to reveal his crime to unsympathetic parents. Gus’s justice was resolute and swift.
Betty Grable, Pat O’Brien, Roy Rogers, and Gus the Cop have all left us. The innocent, corny sentimentality of the movies of our childhood is gone. Today those spirited kids of the Hudson are old men and women, and the world of our youth is no more. All that remains is a nostalgic memory and the famous words of Jimmy Durante….
“Whadda rivoltinn developmint!”
Jack Mason, October, 2000
At about the time I began 7th grade back in 1945, the capitalist bug bit me making me itchy to earn money. Not just what might be paid for doing household chores, or running errands. That was kid stuff. I hankered for a real job that paid real money. So, I pleaded with my folks to let me get a box and shine shoes like my enterprising cousin Johnny Hockey.
Mom wouldnt hear of it. She and Dad thought a 12-year-old peddling shoeshines in taverns and on the streets was demeaning to our family, and made it clear that it was out of the question. Although my parents were not opposed to a part time job, Id have to come up with a more respectable plan for making a buck, and one that wouldnt interfere with my schooling or accordion lessons. Louie Bodnar, our milkman solved my problem.
He agreed to hire me to collect weekly milk bills. So, on Saturday mornings I reported to his Terrace Dairy ice-house located across the street from his home/office on Devon Terrace, and off we went in his model T Ford coupe. Louie drove while I rode in the passenger seat of the old tin lizzy, or stood on the running board hanging rakishly onto the doorframe. To cover our collection routes faster, Lou had the door of the Ford removed making it easier for me to jump in and out. With fresh young legs I would scoot through alleys and up tenement stairs to knock on customers doors and holler in a voice still stuck in the shrillness of adolescence, Milkmaaan!
My job involved collecting $1.19 for one weeks delivery of milk; two quarts delivered to the doorstep every other day for 17cents a quart. I quickly got wise to the magic of words like Maam and Sir and how they lubricated generous tips. So, whenever an aproned house-frau handed me a shiny quarter, I made sure I left her smiling with a big THANK YOU, Maam. See ya next week! Im sure my contrived boyish charm would have amazed my Mom, but I figured it was harmless if it made me 25c richer. One particular tip I fondly remember was a square of Mrs. McKinnons sugar dusted raisin pastry. This smiley, plump lady owned the Scottish bakery on Kearny Avenue, and giving me one of her treats seemed to please her almost as much as I enjoyed eating it.
After all these years, Im still touched by the generosity of ordinary people who have little, but give much. Stereotyping may be out of fashion, but in my experience the good-heartedness of common folks is beyond dispute. My nostalgic old nose also delights in remembering those delicious, old-country cooking smells like Polish pierogis (dumplings) and Italian bracioles (pot roasts), floating from spotless kitchens as I waited for payment at the back door.
The collection routes through the ethnic neighborhoods of Kearny, Harrison, North Arlington, and Down Neck Newark NJ usually took all day, including a stop at one of those Jersey diners with menus so extensive you could squander an entire lunch break just reading them. In bad weather we might be out until well after dark, necessitating a second diner stop for hot coffee and a buttered roll.
Returning home at the end of a long day, I was one pooped puppy, smelling of sour milk and Louies Sweet Caporal cigarettes. Going direct to my fathers secretary desk I dumped out my hard-earned booty, feverishly counting the bills and coins as I entered their value in a ledger with the relish of a pint sized J.P. Morgan. As the earnings column grew, I felt proud of being well on my way to becoming rich.
After a year I tired of the job and wanted to quit. The glamour of being independently wealthy having worn off, I realized that I missed sleeping late on Saturdays, and being free to play ball with my buddies. But this impulse didnt go down well with my parents and they made it clear that I owed it to Mr. Bodnar not to leave until he found a replacement for me. So, reluctantly I stuck it out until I could talk Skeeter Leahy into succeeding me. Now Louie had his replacement, I had Louies respect, and my first job was behind me.
And so I honorably retired, a little richer and a lot wiser. Six years later this decision to do the right thing paid off, because Lou hired me back during my college days. I drove his trucks and managed his commercial routes affording me a chance to cover a big chunk of my Fairleigh Dickinson College tuition.
Many other part time jobs followed this first exposure to hard work, but this was the one that put me on the path to manhood, and like a first kiss, thats worth remembering.
Jack Mason, February 10, 2003
MJ's 7 POUNDS OF OATMEAL
It's the night before Easter. I should be dying eggs, fixing baskets, putting flowers on a pretty bonnet. That was in my other life. A life with children and family and Easter dinner and searching for baskets. That was long ago. Now we have a new life.
So what am I doing on this Easter Eve? I am making slice and bake Valentine cookies. They are vanilla cookies with a pretty red heart smack in the middle. What do they use to get that color? Why tonight? Because the expiration date is 2 weeks old and I can not throw anything like that out, and this is the first time I have had time to do it, plus I made another batch about a month ago, so how many of these valentine cookies can you eat. At this time of year you cannot bring them to a sick, old, lonely friends. Valentines Day was 6 weeks ago. Besides, then I was finishing up the Christmas slice & bake cookies. You guessed it. A white cookie with a green Xmas tree smack in the middle Please believe me. I am not known for my cooking skills, but I can bake and I have baked a lot of cookies in my life(my other life) I have never used slice and bake. Oh, once our daughter, Ellen, when she was in 9th grade bought a package of chocolate chip slice & bake. However she ate the dough before we could bake it.
OX, back to the new life ..... retirement, far away from grown children and family. So what do you do with your new freedom? Go to Sam's Club(our nearest huge discount store) You can fill in the name of the one nearest you in your part of the country. What do you see at this no frills store? Lots of stuff, food, cleaning supplies, paper supplies, all packed in huge quantities. There is no buying one of something. You go into the store with resolve; I only need 2 things. Well, we will just run through and see what they have that is new. First you cannot resist the 12 rolls of paper towels: The -psychology sets in. When will we get here again, (it's 26 miles), it is a good buy. Ironically, when we were a family of five we never bought a pack of 12 of anything, and we had much·· more room then.
Well back to the Valentine cookies.(I never did do Xmas slice & bake, but a neighbor
gave me a few on a Christmas plate, and I thought it was (tute) It's early January and I came upon an open display of the cookies ..... Packed in 3 rolls. These were not on my
list. They were not one ofthe two things I came in to Sam's for. Oh yes, they were cute.
I could make a festive Valentines Day. Immediately I realized tk&t*'Yi~ going to make this purchase. That is when your defenses break down and the Sarni'sClub system sets in without you even knowing it. Well as long as I am buying this, along with tae 2 things L came for, I should look at the dog food. We do not have a-dog,'6iii a-vr son \vifloe ~ ~ .bringing his dog for a visit. We are talking a 100 Ibs. of dog food. And cat food. _ We.dp" J have a cat, how much food is left in the bag, oh well we can always use it. W e~wiJTfi~' ~ room for it. So the cart starts to fill up and the bill starts to build up, but we arj-saVilig''''1 money! P-Iasticsffifage-boxcs thcsc I can rcally use:-~Strappcd togcthcr you ha:,lcto buy -,
3 .... A good buy ! We ,need to get organized in our new retiJ:ement
REQUIEM FOR FINNEGAN
REQUIEM FOR FINNEGAN
I was downstairs messing with my computer when the phone rang. It was Georgie Arrigo calling from her farm, Three Gables, where I kept my horse Finnegan. Upstairs in the living room my wife Mary Jane was playing bridge with a group of her friends. The call came on a lovely Carolina afternoon, exactly five months ago today.
Georgie phoned me many times over the five years that Finnegan boarded at Three Gables, usually to advise that my 17 hand bay thoroughbred needed shoes, a new halter, or shots from the vet. It was just part of the TLC she lavished on all her horses. But today the tone in her voice betrayed an anxiety I hadn’t heard before. “Jack”, she said, “I had Dr. Bibi x-ray Finnegan this morning because he’s been lame for the last two days, and it has me worried. He has a laceration on his upper right leg. Although I don’t know exactly how it happened, I think it’s time to find out what’s going on. You’ll be hearing from Bibi within the hour, and I’d appreciate it if you would fill me in on what she says”.
When I could wait no longer for the call, I phoned the vets office. The news wasn’t good. The x-rays revealed a spiral fracture in the leg bone above Finnegan’s right knee, and even before we got into the details of what to do next my stomach was churning like a cement mixer. I’m sure Dr. Bibi could hear the desperation in my voice when I asked her what my options were. “Well, Jack we could confine Finnegan to his stall in a stand-up sling, and hope that in a few months the bone would heal”. “Hope” sounded so tentative that it scared me, and the prospect of months of stall confinement in a sling was like a punch to my heart.
My mouth was so bone dry I could only murmur the obvious follow up questions. “What good can come of all this? What are the odds that Finnegan will fully recover after being trussed up for so long? He’s so used to being turned out; I don’t know if he could take it.” Bibi gave it to me straight; the odds were not good. Even if the spiral crack healed, it might give out again when he laid down or exerted himself. It was chancy, at best.
Without being able to utter the actual word for euthanasia I blurted, “So, Doctor, if this is it, and if you agree, when should it be done?” She grasped exactly what I meant, and her reply was equally to the point, “Jack, I’m sorry to say I do agree. And you’re right; the confinement would be devastating to a lively guy like Finnegan. In the end, I’m afraid the odds of full recovery are very problematic. As for when; I can only recommend doing it before he aggravates the injury and risks crucial pain. At the moment he’s not hurting all that bad, and so the sooner the better is my advice.” With more resignation than I thought I was capable of, I said, “OK then lets get on with it. When can it be arranged, Doctor?” It was now 1:30PM, and when she replied “3:30 this afternoon” my brain went numb.
For the next few minutes, I couldn’t speak, and Bibi respected my silence. When my voice returned I told her, “Please go ahead then, and do what you have to, but forgive me for not being there. I just don’t think I could take it.” She said, “I understand, because I recently went through this myself with my own horse.” We talked for a bit about doing the right thing for our animals, and when we returned to the sad business at hand, she inquired, “Where do you want him buried?” I choked to get the words out, “I’ll check with Georgie to see if it’s ok to bury him in one of her fields. He so loved his time at Three Gables, I’m sure she’ll agree. I’ll go over to Georgie’s place right away, and you can follow up with her”. Bibi ended our conversation telling me, “I’ll do that, and Jack...I want you to know I’m truly sorry”.
When I hung up, sixteen years of partnership with 23 year old Finnegan raced past the windshield of my memory. Wonderful years testing each other, working hard to understand each other, and ultimately coming to love each other. Sixteen years of galloping across the fields of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas together. Sixteen years of foxhunting, hunter paces, and solitary rides in the woods simply enjoying each other’s company. And now we had come to the end of the trail.
I collected myself, and went upstairs to tell my wife that I had to go to the barn. Since I was afraid I’d fall apart if I told her the full truth, and because I didn’t want to spoil her bridge party, I said I’d be back soon, and not to worry. At that moment a little lie was preferable to the awful reality, so I said goodbye to M.J.and the ladies and headed out for Three Gables. (For all my unconvincing gallantry, Mary Jane later told me she knew in her heart that all was not right when I walked out the door.)
As I expected, Georgie had no problem with putting Finnegan to rest in a shady spot in his favorite pasture. He would be in the same field where he chaperoned his two loyal mares Bailey and Toy, and boldly ran off any gelding that wanted to horn in on his little harem. Bibi and Georgie would handle all the unpleasant details. Now, Georgie and I had nothing left to do but stare mournfully at each other, turning away when tears broke over the dike of our self-control.
It was 2:45PM. In his stall, old Finnegan was munching away on some hay remnants in the feed bucket. Around his muzzle, little tufts of gray hair testified that he was no longer the colt I bought fresh from the racetrack back in 1986. Looking into his soft brown eyes for the last time, I hand fed him a treat, whispered one of our favorite trail songs in his ear, and kissed his handsome face. One more pat on his muscled neck, and I left without looking back.
With a lump in my throat so big I had trouble swallowing, I drove the half-mile from Three Gables to Helge Jacobsen’s cabin. Helge is a good friend and a retired professional horseman. I went to his place because I wanted to share my grief with someone who knew what I was going through. Although the big Norwegian had no idea of my situation, as soon as he spotted me, he knew something was wrong. He took me inside, went directly to his liquor cabinet, and poured me a stiff one. “OK, Jack tells me what’s goin’ on”.
He let me burden him with the heartbreaking story of how quickly Finnegan had gone from being sound as a dollar to the sad finality taking place just a half mile away from where we sat. He listened to an old man blubbering over an old horse. He listened good, and when he spoke he spoke with the kind words of someone who understood; someone who had been there, and it helped.
When my watch informed us that it was 3:30PM, we lifted our glasses in a toast to Finnegan. Good bye old friend, and thanks for the ride.
September 10, 2007
If you bury him in this spot, the secret of which you must already have, he will come to you when you call – come to you over the far, dim pastures of death, and though you ride other, living horses through your life, they shall not
shy at him, nor resent his coming. For he is yours and he belongs there.
People may scoff at you, who see no lightest blade of grass bent by his footfall, who may never hear a nicker pitched too fine for insensitive ears. People who may never really love a horse. Smile at them, for you shall know something that is hidden from them, and which is well worth knowing.
The only place to bury a horse is in the heart of his master….. Author Unknown
Many different factors determine human longevity. Biology, experience and environment all conspire to determine the born and died dates on our tombstones.
But the measure of a good life bases on more than just how long we live. The good life accrues from how we integrate our inherited nature with the uniqueness of our inherited environment. It might be compared to how a great chef mixes simple ingredients in skillful combinations to achieve a marvelous dish, whereas a clumsy mix of the same ingredients by a hack would result in mush. A beautiful painting reflects and succeeds when it evokes an emotion stirring reaction from the viewer, not just the painting skills of the artist.
My own life has witnessed the arrival of sixty-two springs, most of which I can remember in only vague, sentimental terms. The difference for me between Spring '95, and earlier springs, are the new things I've learned this year even as I have forgotten some of the actualities of earlier times. These are maybe just forgotten experiences, thoughts, and emotions that have only temporarily retreated behind a boulder in my unconscious. Or maybe they arent just slightly out-of-focus, but gone forever? Much of whats in my memory attic may well be terminally beyond my access, but I suspect this is a not unusual human condition. And just maybe its a good thing
In the recent weeks that mark my 62nd spring, the cells that constitute my physical being are new, brand new in some cases, and like my new cells I have acquired new knowledge that I didnt have until recently. For example
I now know a bridal path is a trimmed area on top a horses head, groomed that way to provide a path for the head band of a horses bridal.
Neuro transmitters in the brain control physical & psychological features in human being, and are chemical in nature.
Gen. Custer, of Indian wars fame, was given a small souvenir table from the Appomattox farmhouse where the Civil war armistice was signed. He left that historical place carrying the table on his head.
The song More is the work of a European composer, originally entitled Mondo Cane, which for a long time before this Spring, I thought was Mondo Carne.
When I see wild birds like a catbird, I can recognize it and others like a titmouse, black capped chickadee, downy woodpecker, white throated sparrow. and a grackle. All these birds were present in my past Springs, but they were invisible to me. But not now.
A large list of my new knowledge inventory, laid up against my old fading knowledge inventory, just demonstrates how knowledge comes and goes in ones lifetime. But I think whats important is that old dogs can learn new tricks, and these new inputs simulate our regenerating body cells and are all part of the life process. The new knowledge may be complex, or simple it may be a long-term or short-term deposit in your recollection bank, and it may reference silly or sublime subjects.
What is important is the non-stop, inquisitive engagement of the mind and spirit with the constants & variables of our own particular existence. My wife, Mary Jane, is a constant observer and an avid reader about people, places, & things that constitute the news. She has the desire & follow through to be well informed all of which traces back to her fascination with life, and which makes her fascinating in turn.
Long ago I was encouraged to value education, and to understand it is a never ending process essential to my economic success. I can now add that it is also fundamental to the pursuit of happiness, and very much a prescription for a full, and hopefully, long life.
The old adage about selling, paraphrased to be about learning, sums it up..
Learning is like shaving.
You have to do a little
Every day or you will soon
Look like a bum
Jack Mason, 1995
ON A SUNNY SUMMER'S DAY
On this comfortably warm August morning, certain to become an uncomfortably hot August afternoon, MJ and I drive the five miles to Mountainview Berry Farm. The farm is part of the rural landscape of Landrum, a small town located on the SC side of the state line, only a horse shoe pitch from where we live in Tryon, NC. Not yet caught up in development, Landrum hasnt lost its rustic charm, or its connection with the past as so many rural towns have. Tooling down the country road, I couldnt help but notice how at this time of the year the world seems to be swathed in 30 shades of leafy green.
Were out to buy delicious freshly picked raspberries and blueberries that are now in season. Unlike our earlier visit when that days picking was sold out before we got there, this time farmer-proprietor Dale Cunningham has freshly picked berries waiting for us. When we lost out on our last trip, he took our phone number & called yesterday to tell us that his latest crop was ripe and ready. In his polite southern drawl, Dale informed us that fully ripe berries should be eaten promptly, but not to worry because he reckoned that they can also be frozen and still be as tasty as when picked, although hard as marbles.
The Cunningham garden farm encircles a barnyard pasturing goats, a fenced in chicken range, and a bed of for-sale zinnias and marigolds. Smiley Dale sports a stylish wide brim hat to shade the sun, and shorts that make him look more like a golfer than a grower. Like a warm handshake, the walls of the shed where he keeps his for-sale produce, reach out with photos of a young girl hugging a basket of freshly picked berries, stout draft horses showing at the county fair, and a young boy waving from a tractor. The joy in the faces of these kids is so palpable that a little gush of sentimentality tingles my crusty old hide
But even more disarming to a city-boy like me is the way Farmer Cunningham sells his chicken eggs. On the edge of this Norman Rockwell berry patch stands a little hut that houses a tiny fridge perched on a table smack in the middle of it. It brought to my mind an outhouse without a door. On its shelves are the six dozen brown eggs that were collected this morning. These brown beauties are packed in recycled egg cartons that obviously once held the snow white, mass produced eggs from big super markets. Waste not, want not
But what really flips me is that purchasing these organic eggs relies strictly on the honor system! (I guess its quite a savings when customers are so honest you dont need to supply them a cashier.)
Heres how it works you choose your eggs and deposit two bucks in a box on the inside of the refrigerator door. I notice that in that money box are 16 quarters that indicate that two cartons are already sold.
Now keep in mind that the egg shack is easily accessible from the road & out of the farmers view. With no sign announcing its presence I have to conclude that it depends on reliable and regular customers, not advertising...and a refreshingly innocent confidence in not being ripped off.
In other places where living the golden rule is scorned, this kind of faith & trust in people would be reckless, even dangerous. But here, in this tiny corner of the world its for real, and must derive from faith & trust in God. How else can this kind of naivety be explained to a world too sophisticated to understand
Aug. 12, 2005
THE SPIDER ON MY DOOR
My golf buddy, who is more familiar with bugs than me, says that the spider on my door is probably a female. He also thinks this is probably a yellow-something-or-other type of spider. So Ill bow to his greater knowledge and refer to my eight legged tenant as a she, and while Im at it Ill give her the name Sophie
I first noticed Sophie about three months ago. Since then, Ive visited her most every night straddling her ragged web that stretches across the upper left corner on the outside of my downstairs walk-out sliding glass door. Checking her out has become one of my summer pleasures, like settling down to watch the Braves play baseball on TV.
Sophies a fair sized critter, her body resembling in shape a golf ball perched on top of a tennis ball, and large enough that her 8 yellow striped legs would cover a silver dollar. Sophie works on the night shift and shows up for work on her web only after it has become quite dark. Its then that her dark silhouette is revealed from the light of the television set inside the house, the time when I usually go out to pay her a visit.
My fascination with her is not reciprocated since she takes no notice of me unless I move in too close for comfort. Then shell make a run for the shadows of the window frame and hide-out for fifteen minutes, or so, returning to her post when the coast is clear.
Ive never seen this buggy femme fatale arrive on the job, and during the day she escapes to a place thats also unknown to me. She just shows up, and goes to work watching & waiting for the hapless bug that strays too close to her sticky snare; with legs radiating from her bulbous body, she lays motionless in the middle of her barely visible web resembling a bulls-eye on a rifle target. In this position its hard to tell if shes dead or alive.
But in an explosive flash, Sophie pounces onto her fluttering victim. For a moment she just seems to hug her prize. Then, with thrashing legs & a chomping mouth she begins ravishing her prey. Like a teen-ager wolfing down a Big Mac, it doesnt seem to take long before she polishes off her first course and return to watching and waiting for her next meal. One night last week I flicked a nearby moth with my finger in Sophies direction. As soon as it came in range, Sophie glommed onto that unlucky moth and with amazing dexterity twisted & turned to get in position to scarf down yet another snack.
After telling my wife about Sophie, Mary Jane showed me an identical spider on our upstairs sliding door that could be her twin sister. The upstairs spider has built a bigger and more intricately meshed web that makes Sophies net seem almost sloppy. But the upstairs spider has chosen such a high traffic area that her lacey home is much more vulnerable. So, it appears that even spiders have to take into account the old saw about real estate, location, location, location.
Until I happened upon Sophie, insects held no particular fascination for me and meeting up with a yellow-something-or-other spider is not likely to kindle any new interest in studying bugs. But after three months of nightly encounters and with fall only a few days off, cold weather, old age, or some spider predator is very likely going to put an end to Sophie. When that happensas silly as it soundsI think Im going to miss her.
Jack Mason, Sept 16, 2003
MORE ABOUT THE SPIDER ON MY DOOR
Another episode of the spider on my door
Ive gone from just being an observer of my spider to becoming her predator partner. Like Dr. Frankenstein enabling his monster, I now supply Sophie with some of her victims.
Last night I captured what I thought was a moth, and flung it directly on her web. She immediately went into action, bear hugging the moth that turned out to be a fire-fly. In Sophies clutches the fire-flys panic inspired such frequent flashing of iridescent light it looked like a miniature neon sign gone crazy. In spite of Sophies deadly embrace the frenzied blinking of eerie green light continued for almost three minutes, when the spider suddenly disengaged. Maybe the light display scared her, or maybe the fire-fly was just unappetizing. But for whatever reason, Sophie surrendered the lightning bug to scamper across her orb after a new entrée, leaving the bedraggled fire-fly to die uneaten.
A few minutes later, a lime-green grasshopper made the mistake of zigging instead of zagging and wound up snarled in the web. Although this 3 inch critter was huge in comparison to Sophie, my opportunistic hairy girlfriend once again abandoned her victim, to pounce on this big new main course. In astonishment I watched a blur of flailing legs and fluttering wings that made me wonder if Sophie hadnt bit off more than she could chew! Their wrestling match and combined weight were just too much for the delicate web strands which collapsed as they fell to the ground, locked in a battle to the finish.
When I left to go to bed, Sophie was putting the finishing touches on her grounded conquest. Rotting grasshopper residue the next morning revealed that Sophie had prevailed; large green wings the only evidence of their mortal combat. Sophie was no where to be seen, so I could only guess that she also retired after stuffing her belly with green grasshopper.
When I went out tonight, Sophies ragged net was empty, making me worry that something might be wrong. But it was raining quite hard and a closer look revealed her huddled in a ball under the window frame apparently trying to keep dry. Later she came out from hiding and took up her place on the web, ready for another night of doing what comes natural.
From what Ive read on the internet, Sophie is probably an orb-weaver garden spider. Orb weavers construct elaborate symmetrical webs, and depend more upon vibrations than good eyesight to spot their prey. Once captured their victims are paralyzed with the spiders poison, and trussed up in spider silk. After consuming the edible portions of their prey, the garden spider then boots the non-edible parts off the orb, or web as it is more commonly known. Females, like Sophie, produce egg sacs in the fall containing hundreds of eggs that hatch soon afterwards, but sometimes not until the following spring. Since its now Sept 22nd, Sophie hasnt got much time left, but Im going to continue to keep watching until the curtain comes down on this fascinating drama. For someone who had no interest, or knowledge about creepy crawlers, Im surprised at how hooked on Sophie Ive become.
Jack Mason, Tryon, NC, 2003
MY BROTHER FRANCIS
I really enjoy your e-mails..and in particular your stories that connect to my brother. He and I traveled in different circles as kids and young men, but later in life were much closer. His last years were sadly and peculiarly estranged from his family, before he died in a Vets hospital--when he went into the hospital for a throat cancer operation, from which he was recovering, and unexpectedly succumbed to massive hemorrhaging of his ulcers. At the time he was living apart from his family..although he visited them regularly, returning at night to his books and his room in a boarding house. June & the girls lived in Bloomfield, and Francis in nearby Irvington. It was a strange arrangement, but one that apparently suited them. But then, living with an extended family had always struck me as a bit strange. The Byrds weren't bad people, mind you, but I think Francis' marriage might have benefited from a little more independence from their influence. You know, living in the same house with your wife's family--never getting a chance to establish your own identity, etc. Since Francis died, we have tried to stay in touch, but June seems disinclined. For a time the oldest daughter kept up a once a year exchange of Christmas cards, but that also has ceased.
Francis was a wonderful guy who had more than his share of hard luck. Some of this was of his own doing, like too much booze, but most of it was just a bad hand dealt him by fate.This may sound a little melodramatic, but whether in business, or his married life, he was all too often a victim of circumstances. Although he never complained, and would resent being thought of as a victim... he truly deserved better, and I miss not having him in the last quarter of the game of life. A man's a man for alla that...
every impossible challenge begins to be met when some unenlightened person decides it really
Being a good person is more than just not being a bad person
On Jayson Blair scandal
His elitist bosses turned MLKings message on its head! Its the color of skin, not the content of character, that means more
A moderate only supports abortion for half-pregnant women
A moderate is usually a Democrat who is afraid, or ashamed, to admit it
The myth of Christ is more powerful than any refutation, no matter how much truth and proof it claims.
Being vanquished by the American military brings better days to Americas enemies. If you dont believe, ask the Germans, the Japanese, the Grenadines, the Panamanians, the Afghanis, and the Iraqis and many others.
All that is, is because it is
All that is, is because of God
On Conservatives & Liberals:
Both can observe the same clock. One will claim the time is 3 oclock,
The other will claim its 5 oclock.
Both could be wrong, but
Both cannot be right
On what America is:
The awesome success of America traces to the high probability for ordinary people that their skill, ambition, and hard work will pay off. Poverty is a curse for some, and a choice for many, but it is not an inescapable destiny in America. Would this were true for the entire world.
Terrorism succeeds when the lion is intimidated by the ant
Democrats are for big government and small armies
Republicans are for big armies and small government
Hooray for the South...where black people and white people address an old codger like me, as "Sir"...Nice, really nice...reeely naaas!
MJ'S LETTER TO COUSINS
Of course, Anne told me about Uncle Ray and she also sent me the newspaper clippings. Sorry I am late with this, but I was just at the start of a heavy flu bug that went on forever. Then we were having company and of course that means cleaning the house!
It seems like it is the end of an era for all of us. But what a good era it was and how blessed we were with our parents. Your Dad was the best Uncle! I remember when I was very young that I was a little afraid of him, but of course as I grew I learned that he was the best example of a father, husband, and a good man. When he laughed and smiled, then I wasn't scared anymore. Above all I know that family was the most important to him. I also know that times were not always easy for him, but I never remember anyone saying that he or your Mom complained.
One aside Remember the summers I stayed for a week or so in Bayonne. They were
such fun for me. But I do remember that the bedroom was right over the kitchen .and either Dolores or Carol complained to their Dad that he woke them up when he stirred his coffee in the morning. I never could figure that out since I did not hear the stirring. Remarkably, he just laughed and said he would try to be quiet when he stirred his coffee.
So here's to the "Jelly Bread Man" , who made those Sunday night suppers so special..
My love to you all. You are always invited to come visit us. It gives me a great excuse to clean the house.
Der tisch are the German words for the table. At least thats how I remember them from my 1950s Kearny High School German language class. Der kuchen tisch" more precisely means the kitchen table but in the interest of simplicity Ill just stick with Tisch. Its the muscular sounding, no nonsense name Ive given to the furniture center piece that presided over our Mason family kitchens for the past 47 years.
Along with other home furnishings, I bought Der Tisch in Chicago in the spring of 1960 in preparation for my upcoming marriage to Mary Jane Hastings, of Roselle New Jersey, which was to take place in NJ in August of that year.
At the time I was living the bachelor life in Chicago having been transferred there by the Lionel Corp. in the fall of 1958. When I purchased Tisch at a special warehouse discount store, besides the limits of my budget, I was concerned about size, color, what MJ would think of my selection; and how it would look and fit in that first dream house we hoped to buy in a year or two. So, nagged by a mild anxiety about whether or not I had made the right choice I plunked down my money & arranged for delivery to our apartment in Riverside, Illinois to be in place upon returning from our east coast honeymoon, September 1960.
It was done. Der Tisch was ours, and has remained ours for the 47 years that have run their course since then. Who wouldve thunk??
After all these many moons, the 48 diameter Tisch and matching chairs has held sway over kitchens in the 10 different houses that weve lived in. It has not only been ruggedly serviceable, its simple design is also still in fashion. The perfectly round table surface is made of a milk white hard bonded type plastic material that has held up remarkably well to all sorts of knocks, scrapes, bumps and colored crayons. The 4 straight backed matching chairs that serve Der Tisch are also in good shape. All 5 pieces reveal the enduring style popular in the sixties, built by a Wisconsin manufacturer with what I take to be a hard wood of some kind probably walnut. . Replacing seat cover fabrics have been the only changes weve made to Der Tisch.
In a family of 5, when I was home and not traveling on business, one of us (usually Eric, our youngest) had to sit upon a metal folding chair at dinner time: Although paint spattered & pretty beat-up, that loyal ally of Der Tisch, is still hanging out in our basement here in North Carolina. Today it serves as a high chair for visiting grandkids. Seems like old furnishings like these just keep on giving.
The table top, although still in good condition & appearance, has a few scars to show for the thousands of occasions our family ate on it, played games upon it, used it for reading and hobbies, or just sat at it to talk out our problems, hopes, and aspirations. It has seen us all change & grow, it has heard us laugh, it has heard us cry, and over the years its been the platform for countless conversations amongst family & friends. It was here that MJ and I thrilled over the prospect of buying our first house; debated the names we would give to our children; decided on new job offers; planned cross country moves; wrapped Christmas presents for three sleeping children, and thanked God for our daily bread.
11 year old Ellens imagination transformed Tisch into a pretend TV studio in Minnesota where she tape recorded the news broadcast from Station WXYZ back in the early seventies along with 7 year old Eric the weatherman, and 9 year old Jack, the drug reporter. Later these same kids would gather round the kitchen table to choose colleges, and explore the exhilarating possibilities of the world in front of them which coincidentally led Ellen into the real television business, by way of her part time summer job serving up greasy sandwiches at Big Als Long Branch boardwalk stand.
Though we may have forgotten how we were, I dont think Der Tisch has or maybe Im just being schmaltzy. If so, please forgive me.
When I decided to organize my Tisch recollections I worried they might sound like the foolish blathering of an old man. I also worried it might sound cloying to focus only on the good experiences, but decided to do so anyway preferring to leave skeletons in the closet where they belong. And now I hope Ive awakened other pleasant Tisch memories that we can all share...and be gifted to future generations of Masons who will doubtless have their own Tisch stories to remember in the future. Lets pray theirs will be as happy as ours Dad
(Started 1995 in Middletown NJ, completed 2006 in Tryon, NC)
SO YOU THINK WE'VE GOT PROBLEMS?
Imagine what the U.S. would do if we were suddenly flooded with 75 million illegal immigrants instead of the current estimated 7-8 million? Yet that is the scale of the problem in China where 300 million peasants are illegally migrating from villages to cities, a population shift larger than any in recorded history. These migrants arent from a different country, like our illegal immigrants. Theyre Chinese citizens who are forbidden by law from living where they please. Their pilgrimages to the big towns have swollen the urban population of China in numbers that would match the total population of the U.S. And even after crowding into cities, the Chinese peasants left back on the farms is still a staggering 800 million.
In violation of communist law they still keep coming because of the backbreaking labor of a primitive agricultural system, and foreign competition. Theyre leaving the rice paddies and farms for menial jobs in metropolitan areas, fed up with endless drudgery and reduced demand for Chinese farm products since joining the World Trade Organization. In the country we usually blame for highjacking U.S. manufacturing jobs, its ironic how free-trade agricultural competition from more efficient producers (high-tech foreign farmers) is emptying the fields of peasants hot-footing it to the bright lights of the cities.
These economic refugees are flocking to towns where they eke out miserable existences on the lowest rung of the income ladder. Even by Chinese standards their pay is pitiful, barely covering the necessities of life. Adding to their hardship, theyre frequently ineligible for basic social services, including public education. In Beijing alone, there are an estimated 3 million newly arrived peasants living in a poverty made even more stark by contrast with the new affluence of their city-born neighbors. In other cultures, this would be the stuff of which revolutions are made, but the largest standing army in the world and the Chinese tradition of obedience to central authority will probably keep the lid on for the near future. Long term, however, the integration of these people will certainly be a huge challenge for the leaders of the largest nation in the world.
All of this dislocation takes place in a country where the educated manager class and entrepreneurs are moving into the ranks of the wealthy at astonishing speed. As here in the U.S., those with skills needed in a global economy, like speaking English, are doing just fine, and those not properly preparedare falling desperately behind.
But if there is any nation of people equipped by nature and tradition to rise to these tough new challengesits the Chinese. I hope our young people, and other young people around the world can do as well.
30 Hunting Country Trails, Tryon, NC 859-8356
July 20, 2002
BYE THE SEA, THE BEAUTIFUL SEA
Yesterday, MJ and I took a side trip to Hilton Head Island on our way home from a long weekend in Savannah. Our inspiration was to see old friends and see HHI for the first time. We missed seeing our friends, but took advantage of the opportunity for a two hour drive-thru tour. From thewindow of our car these are some of my impressions
Hilton Head Island is massive. At least its a massive concentration of humanity. Yes, its most certainly upscale, and its most certainly evidence of the human compulsion to go bye the sea, the beautiful sea. But its also a city of cheek-to-jowl super homes, cheek-to-jowl beautiful people driving bumper to bumper Mercedes Benz SUVs. Its far from being the seaside village Im guessing it once was. In the same way I was surprised by the extraordinary development I saw on by my first visit to Nags Head on the Outer Banks I was surprised, and even stunned by the extraordinary development of HHI.
MJ noted how shiny, new, spotless and clean were the vehicles of the islanders not unlike the well kept vehicles we saw on the roads in Hong Kong. The SUV, however, was not the exclusive choice for getting about. Many islanders discard their workaday duds, ditch their gas guzzlers, hop on bikes and go peddling. You can see them everywhere huffing & puffing in red-faced agony, determined to return to basics and get fit in the process. These are folks I would guess who are not unfamiliar with hard work, first class travel, and who know in life there is no gain without pain. But, hey, isnt that what vacations and low-carb diets are supposed to be about?
HHI clearly is a magnet for those with the money to afford zillion dollar mansions, condominiums, and luxury rentals and obviously a mega magnet whose pull is far from weakening. The ever increasing property values must provide the stuff that real estate salesmen dream of .
Driving down what I think was the Islands four-lane main throughway we saw on both sides of the road an uninterrupted continuum of gated housing plantations, or what we used to call developments: Plantations hidden behind manicured landscaping & aristocratic palm trees where signs discreetly announce the entrance ways to guard gates at Lookout Marsh, Harbor Dunes, Crystal Sands, and scores of other seashore Shangri-las and golf courses. Their crisp looks and precise management gave us the feeling of being on a parade ground witnessing divisions of meticulous troops standing at meticulous attention, awaiting stern inspection from our mobile roadside reviewing stand.
But on HHI there are also tons of people who need tons of ordinary services & patrician amenities. Thats only natural, and all this is available. But it is so well camouflaged by landscaping & natural flora that you would need a tour guide to find the Wal-Mart hidden behind the live oaks, the Exxon tucked out of site, or the Golds gym hidden behind the already hidden Home Depot. Despite the hide-and-seek abundance of retail stores, the islanders service needs also appear to be well met by an invisible army of Mexicans. One is again reminded that legal or not, the life styles of all of us would most certainly suffer if these folks suddenly all returned home.
Before heading out the road we came in on, MJ and I boldly risked trespassing in a posh neighborhood that was within a short walk to the beach. We wanted to see how HHI beaches compared to other beaches we have known. Indeed, the HHI beach was beautiful, wide, and very well kept. The people walking the beach, or those just sitting on the white sand were people who looked to be enjoying the cool but sunny early October day. And so this is what Im guessing to be the bottom line for Hilton Head Island SC, just as it is for bald Head Island NC, Seaside Heights NJ, Revere Beach MA, Shek-O Beach, HK, and all the worlds many other watery retreats that are Bye the Sea, bye the beautiful sea
October 9, 2006
DEATH OF A TOYMAN
THIS LETTER WAS SENT TO ME 5/17/06 BY KEN SIMMONDS IN ENGLAND. BY 9/07/06 POOR KEN HAD DIED. I"LL MISS HIM AND THE MANY GOOD TIMES WE HAD TOGETHER IN HONG KONG
Jim passed on to me the news of your accident.
I trust that you and Mary Jane are fully recovered, or , at least, well on
the way to that desirable state
Jack, you are a rare and very special commodity, thus you must take care
when driving, drinking, secret smoking or any other dangerous pursuits.
I am, as you know, sort of semi retired. This means I wander in to the
office at about 10.00, work until 1.00 then, once I have studied the form
and placed my bets, wander off home again. An enjoyable and not too taxing
life. Always provided the horses run well.
Why are all our favourite singers dead?
Love you madly, get well.
In the last communication I had from Ken on May 17, he ended his brief e-mail expressing his wishes for a speedy recovery from our horrendous May 4 auto crash here in the States...with an intriguing question. He asked, "Why are all our favourite singers dead?" and then he signed off, "Love you madly", Ken.
Well, Charlie I think I know the answer to Ken's query...and it's as simple as this: They've all finished their songs...and so it is, Ken has finished his song, but God Almighty, what a great song it was!
I'll miss him, but I won't forget him...
All the best to you & all his friends and kin...
BILL KINNEY ON KEARNY
Women in Kearny gravitated toward socializing at home. Social meetings were either pre-arranged or, more likely, a spur of the moment visit. They were never proceeded by todays mandatory telephone call. Few people had telephones. We did not have one until I was 20 years old.
The women in my family seldom drank alcohol. They drank tea.
The Kearny tea ceremony was, in its way, as ritualized as the one made famous by the Japanese and it was far more unusual. I was enthralled by it even as a child. As an adult I have yet to see its equal as a social event. To recount it faithfully will threaten my credibility as a storyteller.
A womens social meeting in our house consisted of from two to six women. Upon arrival each would sit at the kitchen table. When the last participant arrived my mother would light the burner of the kerosene stove and place a kettle of water on it to boil. Cups, saucers, spoons, sugar and cream (skimmed off the top of a quart of non-homogenized milk) were placed on the table.
Each woman proceeded to mound from two to four heaping teaspoons of sugar into her empty cup.
When the water boiled, the bizarre part of the ceremony began. Each woman opened her purse and withdrew a tea bag wrapped in a napkin--- a used tea bag. It was placed in the cup on top of the mound of sugar and was covered with boiling water from the kettle. Depending upon the mileage on each tea bag, they were left in the boiling water from a few seconds to several minutes. After the steeping process was completed, the tea bags were squeezed firmly between the index finger and a teaspoon, to remove as much water as possible. The "still good" tea bags were wrapped in a napkin and returned to the owners handbag to await the next tea.
The tea ceremony proved that the Scotsman was as well suited for survival in the economic climate of the Great Depression as the polar bear is to the Arctic.
My Mother was a troubled woman. The pressures and the uncertainty of the depression had a debilitating effect upon her.
She was born to a Scottish, immigrant, Father and a native American Mother who, in turn, was descended from a Canadian Indian Mother and a French Canadian Father. My Mother was, I believe, a beautiful woman of full figure. By todays standards she would have been twenty or thirty pounds overweight. However, mens taste in women are constantly changing. In 1935 one of todays beauty contest winners would be scoffed at as "skin and bones". Men in those days wanted a woman with easily identifiable bust and hips.
My mother had jet black hair cut to a medium length, featuring a soft wave. Her skin was soft and lactescent. She always seemed to be of poor health. Her most disabling illness was not considered a sickness at all in the those days. She suffered from what her contemporaries called "a bad case of nerves".
I am sure that psychiatrists of the 1980s would have diagnosed her condition as severe anxiety neurosis, slipping into periods of depression. A modern doctor would have empathized with her condition and prescribed any one of a number of drugs to help ease the screaming fears and anxieties that lived within her. However, my mother didnt have the help that is available to us today. Instead she was told that she should get a hold of herself. No one understood. No one could understand. My mother used the only self therapy that she knew of. She cried.
As a child, I would be puzzled and often worried when I would commit a minor misdemeanor and it would be greeted with an emotional outburst from her that was of an intensity not in keeping with the nature of my transgression. When things went wrong the demons that troubled her would seek outlet through tears.
She had no hope of cure. She did not know she was ill. No one understood. She just had "nerves".
For reasons unknown to me, my Mother dropped out of school in the sixth grade. Her education appeared to stop at the same time. As far as I could tell her interests did not extend beyond her extended family. My father was depended upon for all decisions and the knowledge required to make them. My mothers life was built around a litany of old wives tales which she "knew to be true".
To my everlasting regret I was ashamed of my Mother when I was a youth. I was embarrassed by her almost total lack of knowledge of the world.
As I grew older I recognized that the shame I felt for my Mothers lack of education and perhaps intelligence was no more than a manifestation of my own severe insecurities.
I never broached my feelings to my Mother, yet I am sure that she instinctively felt my emotions. She returned my shame with love and pride.
To my dying day I will regret those childhood emotions and I will always be ashamed of them.
When I sat at my Mothers deathbed , I had long since ceased to be ashamed of her but had never developed the ability to communicate my adult feelings to her. I was never able to purge myself of my guilt. Of all my failings in life this, I judge to be my greatest.
As my Mother was dying she carried on long, often incoherent, one way conversations with her long dead Mother. I wonder if she was trying to expurgate some 60 year old real or imagined sin.
It would have been impossible for my Mother or her contemporaries to have imagined the womans liberation movement. Their lot in life was dictated by the exigencies of keeping the family fed, clothed, and reasonably clean. Their work started in the morning and continued, with few interruptions until late at night.
Most people either credit or blame the feminist movement for the "liberation" of women. In fact, it was effected by male dominated post World War II technology.
At he end of the war hundreds of factories and thousands of engineers quickly changed over from making military products to making appliances. The mass production methods learned during the war were now focused on the civilian market. This was a market that was rich with cash and starved for some luxury after the deprivation of war induced shortages.
Technology developed washing machines, clothes dryers, modern cooking stoves, wash and wear clothing, frozen and prepared foods. Modern womens home work was cut to a small fraction of that of their Mothers and Grandmothers.
Women now had the time to think, and if they wished, to get jobs outside of the family.
Technology was no less active in industry. Improved productivity raised the standard of family living permitting women to gain an education, be introduced to fresh and often revolutionary ideas.
In my opinion technology developed the most revolutionary product of all in the birth control pill.
The majority of women entered marriage as virgins during the period before the pill. Sexual morality was fueled by the fear of pregnancy. For the same reason women, and men, married at a much earlier age.
Men were sexual aggressors, they didnt get pregnant. Women were chaste. They did get pregnant. With the advent of the pill, women were freed from the fear of pregnancy. Far less were they the keeper of morality. Often they became the sexual aggressors. With pregnancy removed as a fear; women could marry later, hence; were able to invest their new found education in the pursuit of careers.
In was not Gloria Steinham that made possible the liberation of women. It was a thousand engineers, chemists, and scientists working in laboratories throughout the country. Glorias message would have been dismissed as foolish by both sexes during the Depression days.
For a relatively short time women were given the choice as to whether to work or to be a "stay at home" housewife and Mother. This choice was soon to be virtually taken away from them by the same technology that offered it in the first place.
Technology had an insatiable demand for workers. First, it went overseas for this supply. Soon these overseas countries developed companies with the low cost of labor to compete with the technology of the USA. These overseas competitors forced America to reduce wages in relation to inflation. Industrys voracious appetite soon pulled both liberated and non-liberated women into the work force. Competitive pressures eroded earning power such that both spouses had to often work in order to maintain the same standard of living that only a relatively few years ago could be enjoyed on the paycheck of the husband alone.
A short time before, women who had the choice of either working or Mothering, now had no choice. They had to work due to economic necessity. Not only did they have to work outside the home but they had to perform housework in their "off" hours. Science with its array of labor saving developments had saved women from the drudgery of one job and substituted for it the stress of two .
The final irony in that the fear of pregnancy which opened the sexual revolution was quickly replaced by the dread of AIDS.
OUR BOY BOE
His name is Boe. He wears his name well, with all its boyish and boisterous implications. But hes a boy no more, as confirmed by his graying muzzle, shortened stride and opportunistic snoozing.
Boe is a 40lb, 14 year old mutt who resembles a small German shepherd, but with shorter hair and sharper features. His face is pointed in the aristocratic fashion of a shepherd, with active outsized ears. The bright dark brown eyes that dominate his head are alert, and very expressive; not at all indicative of his age. His black face and upper body are interrupted by a tan colored mask and a tan underbelly and legs. Each of his well proportioned legs reminds me of a scaled down racehorse with small white socks. What surprises many people is Boes absent tail, which probably traces back to the Dingo (Australian wild dog) in his ancestry.
I was fifty years old when Boe was new, but since the hour glass of a dogs life empties much faster, he is now my senior. Cant help but wonder whose sand will run out first, but I think I know the answer.
Boe belongs to my son, Jack, and my son belongs to Boe, for their oneness is truly extraordinary. They hooked up when Jack was a college kid, and ever since, theyve shared a cosmopolitan and zany life together.
Their adventures run the gamut of living in academia, car touring across the US, pilot and co-piloting a Boston cab, climbing mountains of Manhattan stairs in less than opulent digs & lofts, accommodating Jacks unpredictable lifestyle, and would you believe chasing and capturing a thief last summer.
One of their most rousing partnerships began on campus. It ripened into real talent for throwing and catching Frisbees; intricate & entertaining routines that took them to many field trials & shows, which not only deepened their relationship but earned them mucho competition trophies.
But those days of college high-jinks are over for Boe & his master. Jack is now 30 something, more absorbed in his career and less able to spend time with his tailless pal, while Boe is rushing towards Eternity at a rate 7 times faster than us dawdling mortals.
And so it was that my wife and I agreed a Carolina vacation from the hurly burly, the empty days in a Weehawken condo overlooking the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, would be a good experience for all of us: And so it has.
As must happen, however, Boe will soon to return to his other life, and if dogs are capable of reflection, we hope Boe will remember his time with us here in Tryon. We hope hell daydream about his trips to the supermarkets, post office, dentist office, libraries and other suburban ports of call down here in Dixie. He so loved his car rides
Maybe hell muse on our visits to the farm where my horse is stabled, recycling the memory of barn & pasture, where he raucously rolled in piles of manure. And we wonder if hell remember how eagerly he anticipated the doggie treat that became part of our evening cocktail ritual?
Who knows? Our memories will not forget this innocent, remarkable animals instructive example that life is an adventure, as Helen Keller said, or it is nothing. As for that worn out canard about how old dogs cant learn new tricks, well maybe so, but they certainly can teach them to others.
I sent this e-mail to Dr. Yale Arkel in response to his e-mail that came down pretty heavy on Baltic people in general, and Catholics in particular...regarding their complicity in the Holocaust. I received no response...
It's true that the Yalta accords did not implicitly hand over Balkan states to Uncle Joe...indeed the language of the actual Yalta agreement promised the good faith of Great Britain, Russia, and the U.S. to insure the establishment of democracy and open governments in this region. What followed was a "screw you" Soviet takeover that made a mockery of all the good intentions spelled out at Yalta...and the Brits and Americans stood by and let it happen.
Now, one could argue that we had no choice but to stand by... in order to successfully conclude WWII, and get the Russians to bear the brunt of toughest fighting during the end game, as well as persuading Russia to threaten Japs with their entrance into Pacific war...and that all of this was worth the "sacrifice" of eastern Europe. Indeed the Yalta intentions were quite noble...but their implementation was anything but noble. (Not unlike our current Border Regulations) So,Yalta critics like me simply quarrel with the notion that "good intentions" trump actual outcomes, and I think Bush was only trying to say something like this on his recent trip.
I was also surprised by the depth of your despise for the Baltic people. This, of course, is your business and I admit that I don't have the emotional connection you have to this ugly chapter of history...so I bow to your right to be PO'd. by your perception (unshared by me) of an American president pandering to people you consider despicable.
I respectfully disagree, however, when you lump the Poles and their neighbors, with the Nazi beasts. (The Polish animus towards Jews had a religious component to it, for which the Catholic Church was guilty, has admitted it and apologized...but the German annihilation motive stemmed from an insidious pagan fantasy about Ubermensch, or German supermen. So, Polish people, although certainly not historically blameless for bigotry towards Jews, cannot reasonably be equated with the Nazis who slaughtered 1.5 million Polish Jews , out of a Polish Jewish population of 3.5 million. Do the arithmetic, that comes to 43%! Maybe "numbers" aren't as important as impressions, or old wounds, but in this case the numbers are so hideous that they can't be overlooked in any fair analysis. In that connection I'm sending you a history timeline for Jews in Poland, that if it's accurate reveals a robust involvement in Polish affairs by Jews?
I realize that when I try to make a case for proportionality in matters as emotional as these, I can be an annoyance. So please try to accept that I understand your heartfelt sincerity...and I'm not for a minute expecting, or hoping to change you to my views... only that you can accept that my views also stem from a genuine sincerity.
My buddy has gone.
I last saw him in a hospital, his cancer taking its terrible toll before the end mercifully came at 3:25 PM March 15, 2004. It made me angry that such a good man had to submit to such an outrage. But I knew that, if he could, he would have counseled calm, not fury, and acceptance of Gods will. Thats just the way he was.
Five days later, in a crowded, old Catholic church in Plainfield, NJ, where Paul revered the God of his Faith for 70 years, his memory was celebrated by a funeral mass presided over by three Roman Catholic priests, a monsignor, and a deacon. Memorabilia of his well lived life sat on a small table fronting the church altar. An 8X11 framed photo of his smiling face flanked the beautiful wooden box that was the repository of his humanity, engraved Paul J. OKeeffe, 1934-2004. A tiny toy action figure of Superman evoked a humorous remembrance of the many years Paul served the citizens of Plainfield, NJ, when he was known as Supermayor because of his steady leadership, and calming influence during those fractious times. A miniature shamrock covered elephant figurine signaled his devotion to his Party and his Irish heritage, an Im OK campaign button, and a folded American flag filled out the simple display of Pauls worldly priorities. It would have made him smile. Thats just the way he was.
The overflow crowd at St. Marys listened to politicians and priests recounting how, as City Councilman, Mayor, County Freeholder, and family man, Paul OKeeffe had impacted the lives of so many people. Pauls sons, Kevin and Patrick, with inherited quiet dignity eulogized their father, even as they struggled with the numbing tragedy of their loss. Their words gave voice to hundreds of people whose presence was silent testimony to this truly remarkable man; and comfort to his beloved wife, Lori, his adored 3 year old grandson Christopher, his loyal brothers Gerald and John, and their families. Im sure all of this adulation would have made Paul blush. Thats just the way he was.
As kind words about the legend of Paul J. OKeeffe filled the church, I couldnt help but think about how many times Paul had attended ceremonies like this about how many times he had himself extended his hand and embrace to those who were anguished by the death of a loved one. I also thought of how Paul would have been pleased, but humbled by such an outpouring of respect and admiration for his exemplary human decency. That just the way he was.
His passing robs me of a pal that Ill never forget, but he leaves me a priceless legacy. No man Ive ever known better demonstrated that to have a friend, you must first be a friend. Thats just the way he was.
March 24, 2004
GOD BLESS THE CHILD
God Bless the Child Thats Got His Own, the famous Billy Holiday musical sentiment could be another title for the PBS documentary, JAZZ, because these lyrical words evoke the gift of genius, without which jazz would never have graced our culture.
JAZZ fetched up old memories, and inspired new perspectives for many of us who have lived during this era. Viewing the first installments of the series, I cant help but think that repeat airings will illuminate even more insights, new discoveries and new understandings. But, after all the detailed history and analysis of Jazz, my overarching impression is that these musical heroes were often tragic geniuses whose fate was to lead brief and melancholy lives. It is as if their gifts came at a price. As if the usury of the gods demanded payment in misery for their magical talents.
The art of jazz is inseparable from its joyous and sometimes tormented creators. The predominately black men and women who played the instruments, sang the songs, or composed the words and music, were extraordinary artists while at the same time just ordinary people. Their music was the thing that transformed them; that distinguished them from us, and even from themselves. When they came on stage, they left behind their mere mortality to create immortal art. Day laborers, waiters, store clerks, farm hands, street urchins all became prodigious giants transformed in front of our eyes. They electrified dance palaces, saloons, concert auditoriums, church halls, glitzy night clubs, and dives with the sounds of the American soul.
My fascination is with how an otherwise average human being, manages the demands of an enormous creative talent? Is genius a curse or a blessing?
BY JOHN HASTINGS MASON FOR HIS DAD'S 60th BIRTHDAY
The Compleat Horseman
By Jack Mason the Younger
January 13, 1993
The Duke of Monmouth, (Monmouth Beach NJ, that is) wasnt to the horsey manor born. My dad grew up in Kearny, a working-class Scots-Irish town hard up against Newark, played soccer at Kearny High while former New York Giant Alex Webster starred on the schools football team, boxed in the Marine Corps, and worked his way through college before taking his first job in the toy business as a salesman for Lionel Trains.
Jack Mason, 60, has sold toys his entire adult life and is an unqualified success at it, largely because hes an intensely driven man. Hes bright and quick to laugh but just as quick to angertraits Ive inherited. Hes also an incurable debate-baiter and pessimist. A heart attack a dozen years ago and three recently bypassed arteries in his chest bear witness to those darker qualities. But eight years ago, he underwent a figurative change of heart after a friend took him riding for the first time.
Today my portly, unpedigreed Pop is a zealous equestrian and foxhuntera member with color of the Hidden Hollow Hounds based in Middletown. And if he hasnt found absolute happiness yet, hes in hot pursuit of it whenever on or near his stout thoroughbred, Finnegan.
(A brief digression for those understandably concerned about the quarry: Dad says fox-chasing is a better description of the sport as practiced in central Jersey, where most often all thats caught is a scent of Charlie James. Mr. James himself is rarely seen and rarer still dispatched. As is true for many American hunts, hunting has little to do with it. The plays the thingthe jumping of hedge and fence, the parade of hounds and mounts, the clothes, the etiquette, etc.)
In any case, I think my fathers romance with horses and hunting is instructive. Like too many men of his ripening age, my father seemed headed for terminal curmudgeonhood, that unfortunate condition in which old men mistake experience for wisdom and grow cynical in the shadow of their own mortality. The toyman desperately needed some playtime, to find something that would put into perspective the many things in work and life that so easily vex him. Horses seem to have done all that for him. I suspect that discovering his athletic calling as a middle-aged man with a bad heart deepened and cemented his infatuation as well. And I can imagine how that first, fateful encounter with a horse fulfilled some patrician fantasy of the working-class kid inside him.
His own view of his conversion is fatalistically upbeat, which in itself demonstrates how much riding has changed him.
Horses came into my life at the right time, says Big Jack. If I was younger I wouldnt have had the time or money. But theres a certain mystery in learning something about yourself you didnt know was in there. Maybe its the affinity the Irish are supposed to have for horses. Anyway, its not often you stumble onto something that really sustains your interest.
Thats definitely been the case with Dad, a chronic dabbler. After his heart attack, running was a short-lived sporting pastime, as were golf and sailing. But riding has truly invigorated him, so much so that broken bones from being kicked or thrown havent paled his enthusiasm. In fact, while he has since grown into a competent rider, unscheduled dismounts plagued him his first few years in the saddle, an ignominy that injured his purse as well as his personhis hunt maintains a tradition that whenever horse and horseman part, the rider owes a bottle of spirits for the Hunt Ball. Dad led his league in that department more than once. We used to tease your father, one member told me at an end-of-season dinner, that it wouldve been cheaper for him to buy a liquor store.
Riding has been a therapeutic obsession that has softened if not altogether smoothed Dads rougher edges. Hes less preoccupied these days with pet demons like The Inherent Evil of Big Government, and The General Rise in Lawlessness. Okay, not much less, but his ire usually evaporates if someone asks after Finnegan. (My siblings and I employ this strategy sparingly, as it means swapping a Tory tirade for some stem-winding account of man-and-mounts latest gambol in the field or current developments in horseshoe technology.)
As you might expect, he dotes on his great gelding shamelessly. For example, he once suspected Finnegans back was sore and hired someone to come in and give the steed an acupressure massage. And Finnegans hooves arent shod with just ordinary horshoes. His have tungsten cleats for added grip on icy winter hunts. I call them his Mare Jordans.
How horsehappy is my father? Riding may have afforded him a good-sized piece of mind but he thinks, for example, that my dog looks like a horse. His shelves are crammed with more horsey impedimentabooks, videos, catalogs, and statuettesthan youre likely to find in the bedroom of the most ponymad schoolgirl. And the toyman has acquired a staggering array of adult playthings for his avocation: helmets, crops, coats, boots, waxes, oils, bridles, saddles, and the riding pants my mother triesa sisyphean taskto keep white.
But if Dads equinomania is boundless, his familys tolerance of it isnt. My sister Ellen reminds me that a few years ago he returned from a trip to Virginias foxhunt heartland withyoiksand electrified lawn jockey. So mortified was his only daughter that she hid the icon under the porch. The rest of the family agreed to let Dad believe some jealous suburban equestrian had swiped it.
Dads disorder may not have infected his wife Mary Jane or their offspring, but its apparently quite contagious because it struck a family friend, Sean Growney, a few years ago. Sean was the type of young man more likely to be caught riding a Harley-Davidson than a horse, but somehow my father talked him into taking a lesson. Sean was hooked as fast and as sure as Dad, and eventually became a huntsman and whipper-in, the Master of Foxhounds assistant who rides herd on the pack. A few years ago he quit the asbestos-removal business and galloped off to blacksmith school in Arizona. Now he makes a living shoeing horses in the Garden State though he doesnt have much time to ride anymore.
So what then is it, to borrow a well-lathered aphorism, about the outside of a horse thats been so good for the inside of my dad, so captivated and sustained him that while recuperating from bypass surgery two years ago, his biggest concern was that his wired-up breastbone knit quickly so he could get back on Finnegan ASAP?
It is, of course, a physically rugged yet aesthetically pleasing activity. But as my fathers friend, fellow hunter and heart attack survivor Vince Gibney explains, Being on a horse really lets you know youre alive. If anything puts me in touch with who I am and why lifes good, its riding to hounds.
Like Dad, Vince is a Jersey-raised, self made sort whose first question in the hospital was likewise, When can I ride again? Among their hunt, the two are sometimes referred to as the Nitroglycerin Boys because both ride hard but must carry vials of heartstarting nitro with them, just in case.
Vince is one of many friends my father has made through riding and hunting, which is more significant than it may first sound. Though hes always been a gregarious person, Dad was never much of a socializer, and as Im learning, making real friends gets tougher with age. The natural camaraderie of foxhunting has given him a chance to make a whole new slew of friends. And because his hunt is a relative democracy, his hunt buddies come from many walks of life.
My mother concurs that Dad has been deeply and positively affected by riding. M.J. Masonthe founder and sole member of a support group called M.A.N.U.R.E. (Mature Adult Nonriders United to Resist Equitation)-is certain her husband is deeply, truly, and madly in love with his horse, though she thinks he really likes the dressing up part the most. But Jackie, whatever you write, she implores, Just dont make your father sound foolish.
I hope I havent. In fact I truly and deeply admire him for having such an abiding athletic interest at 60. Like so many relationships between fathers and sons ours has been tempestuous, at times bitter. And while my half of it cycled through the requisite phasesWorship, Question, Try to Change, Fail, Despise, Try to Understand, Somehow Accepttheres always been a large measure of love in there too for the man who nourished my adolescent intellect and made it to most of my high school hockey games. Which is why Ill concede him something else that in our years of sniping Ive rarely given: the final word. This is his story, after all, and he is generally a good man, a kind man, words he once used to describe his own late father.
So Dad, why do you love riding and hunting so much? I ask.
Well, its given me a chance to learn a new skill with physical and mental demands he tells me. But what I didnt realize when I began riding was the tremendous satisfaction Id get from controlling and even occasionally inspiring a thousand-pound animal. We all have passions. But only the lucky have those joys revealed to them. And only the blessed are fortunate enough to act on theirs.
Then one final loaded question. And what thinks you, milord, of the Duke of Richmonds fate? That nobleman, youll recall, fought brilliantly at Waterloo and introduced foxhunting to Canada but ultimately, and ironically, succumbed to the bite of a rabid fox.
I should be so lucky, the Duke replies.
JM 1978 LETTER TO MJ
Thoughts About My Wife Page 2
DEAR MR. HASTINGS
It was summer 1959. Mary Jane had agreed to marry me & now I was about to ask for her father's approval. We were at MJ's home in Roselle, NJ, and Mr. Hastings (presumably unaware of my imminent request for the hand of his daughter)...was going on about the many "this-old-house" projects he had accomplished, and was planning for the future. This was one of his favorite topics of conversation. I remember that at that moment when I was trying to muster the courage to pop the question, he was expounding at length on the merits of his carefully maintained furnace with all the attendant charts & stats to prove his case. I thought he would never end these commentaries, so I decided on a different tack to politely broach the subject MJ and I were sweating about. So, in desperation, I requested a piece of paper, scribbled the below note, and politely handed it to him in a midstream exposition on repairing screen doors. He stopped, read the note, and without breaking stride said "OK"... and continued on about the many different ways in which he planned to make his home his castle. A night to truly remember...
1955 Blue Angels
Dear Jim...Thanx for your photo of current Blue Angels...which reminds me of my own brush with this amazing team. The year was 1955 & I was just finishing "basic" flight training at Pensacola, when I met a newly arrived Lt. Jg. Nello Pierozzi. As I remember, we met at a boring cotillion tea dance, when Nello asked me if I knew where there was some action. I agreed that the dance was a stiff, and I proceeded to introduce him to the downtown ginmills. It was during our prowl that I learned he was a BA, and we had quite a laugh when I confessed that I thought he was a greenhorn! Shortly after, I was transferred to Memphis NAS for advanced training, and Nello of course remained at Pensacola since this was now their new home base. But traveling all about the country gave these guys a lot of opportunity to stay in touch, so when Nello called to tell me the Angels were soon to perform in Memphis, I invited him to breakfast with me at the BOQ...which he did. Now, you have to remember I was a lowly 1st Lt. USMC and had minimal dining room privileges. So, when the Base Commander and the other big boys at the head table sent word to Nello to join them, and Nello politely declined...I thought I'd pee my pants. That took chutzpah, and I'll never forget the guy from Mass. that for a short time in my life could be called a buddy! By the way, Nello is the guy on the far right in the photo.
MARY JANE MASON'S OBITUARY
Mary Jane Mason died at home Feb 1, 2008 after an eighteen month struggle with cancer. She was 74 years old. She grew up in Roselle NJ, the daughter of John & Nell Hastings. After graduating from Douglass College of Rutgers in 1958 she worked as a school teacher & Girl Scout professional before she married Jack Mason in 1960, and moved to Chicago. In 1961 daughter Ellen Beth was born, followed by John Hastings Mason in 1962. Two years later, Eric Rogan Mason arrived in Minnesota, the state in which the Mason kids spent most of their primary school years. Mary Jane returned to NJ with her family in 1975 when husband Jack was transferred, moving to Monmouth Beach where they lived for 20 years. When MJ & Jack retired in 1996, they chose Tryon, the friendliest town in the South to enjoy the quiet life at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western NC. Jack was a horseman and he and MJ were active members in the Tryon Hounds. Mary Jane also made many other friends. She volunteered to deliver meals on wheels to needy folks in the countryside. She worked with Outreach Ministries to serve families who required a helping hand. She gave of herself to support many spiritual and material initiatives of her church, St. John the Baptist. And in recent years, MJ greatly enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie of her just-for-fun bridge playing partners. Mary Jane treasured her children and grandchildren. Daughter Ellen lives in NYC with her daughter Natalie. Son, Jack lives in Maplewood NJ with his wife Jessica & their two little boys, Owen & Eamon. And over in Hong Kong son Eric and daughter-in-law Angie are parents to Sophia, and Rogan. They will all miss Mom and Grandma terribly. During her 48 years married to Jack, Mary Jane was a loyal, happy & supportive wife who made their life together a joy. She is survived by her two widowed sisters, Anne Rooney of Oceanport, NJ, and Eileen Rutter of Centennial, Colorado. Those whose lives intersected with Mary Janes, admired, respected & frequently loved her. Her husband Jack attempted to describe in his song lyrics what so many of us who knew her felt about this wonderful human being Mary Jane, Mary Jane angels smile at the sound of your name. Her ashes will be interred at St. Catherines RC mausoleum-cemetery, Sea Girt NJ. It was Mary Janes wish that anyone so inclined would donate to FootHills Hospice since she was so grateful for their help and compassion. In her memory a memorial mass is planned in Tryon NC at St. Johns, and in Monmouth Beach, NJ at Church of the Precious Blood
MJ LETTER 3 MONTHS PRIOR TO HER DEATH
Dear Betty & Chuck
Reading your recent church newsletter, I was reminded of your very kind inclusion of my name in your prayer chain. Jack had mentioned it earlier to me, at a time when I wasnt in shape to properly reply. But now that Im coming along, I do want to you to know that Im grateful & humbled by your gracious Christian gesture. Im also convinced that the power of sincere prayers to a merciful God has resulted in my survival from this dread disease. Whether or not it is Gods will that this is a permanent or temporary reprieve is not for me to say, or worry about. Not when there are such wonderful people as you to whom I can send my best wishes for a delightful Thanksgiving and joyous Christmas. God bless you both..
JACK H MASON'S EULOGY TO HIS MOTHER MARY JANE MASON FEB 2008
THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD WOMAN
EVERY LIFE TELLS A STORY. MOST GOOD STORIES, LIKE THE PARABLES THAT JESUS USED TO CONVEY HIS MESSAGE OF LOVE, TRY TO TEACH US SOMETHING. BUT THEY DO SO BY CHALLENGING US TO FIND THE DEEPER MEANING WITHIN THEM.
OUR MOTHER MARY JANE LOVED NOTHING MORE THAN A GOOD STORY. SHE LOVED TELLING STORIES, LISTENING TO THEM AND READING THEM IN BOOKS AND MAGAZINES. AND IM PRETTY SURE SHE APPRECIATED THE POWER OF THE PARABLE.
WHAT THEN ARE SOME OF THE LIFE LESSONS THAT WE COULD GAIN FROM MY MOTHER MARY JANES JOURNEY? WHAT MIGHT BE THE PARABLE OF THIS GOOD WOMAN?
A PARABLE IS BY NATURE BRIEF AND VIVID, AND TRIES TO LEAVE LISTENERS WITH LASTING FOOD FOR THOUGHT. SO RATHER THAN TRYING TO RECOUNT MARY JANES REASONABLY LONG AND VERY HAPPY LIFE, OR SIMPLY TO SING HER PRAISES, ID LIKE TO SHARE SOMETHING MORE PRACTICAL AND PURPOSEFUL. TO LOOK FOR THE DEEPER MEANING WITHIN THE LIFE MY MOTHER LEAD.
I THINK WE CAN FIND THAT INNER WISDOM IN THREE FACETS OF HER HUMANITY THAT IM SURE ALL OF YOU WHO KNEW HER WOULD RECOGNIZE: THE POWER OF HER OPTIMISM, HER CONTAGIOUS SENSE OF HUMOR AND HER GREAT GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT.
I DONT THINK SHE WOULD MIND US REMEMBERING HER IN THIS WAY BECAUSE SHE WAS SUCH A NATURALLY GENEROUS PERSON.
IF WE COULD FIND SOMETHING USEFUL AND INSTRUCTIVE IN WHO SHE WAS AND HOW SHE LIVED, IM SURE SHE WOULD BE GLAD IF MAYBE A LITTLE EMBARRASSED TO SERVE AS A BEACON OF BASIC, SIMPLE HUMAN GOODNESS.
ONE OTHER REASON: HAVING GROWN UP IN ROSELLE, NJ DURING THE DEPRESSION WITH HER SISTERS ANNE AND EILEEN, SHE WAS ALSO QUITE THRIFTY: ALWAYS LOOKING TO SAVE, REUSE AND NOT LET ANYTHING GO TO WASTE.
SO WITH THAT AS A PREAMBLE, ON WITH THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD WOMAN.
A NATURAL OPTIMIST
THERE ONCE WAS A WOMAN WHO SIMPLY SAW THE GOOD IN OTHERS AND IN MOST SITUATIONS. SHE DIDNT JUST SEE THE GLASS HALF-FULL. SHE SAW THE BIG, ICY PITCHER OF LEMONADE SITTING NEXT TO THE GLASS, AND SAVORED LIFES BLEND OF SWEETNESS AND TART.
MARY JANE WASNT NAÏVE OR BLIND TO THE DARKER REALITIES OF THE WORLD AROUND HER. AND SHE WASNT UNREASONABLE IN HER HOPEFULNESS. SHE WAS JUST AN OPTIMIST BY NATURE AND PERSONALITY. HER ESSENTIAL SUNNINESS, NEITHER FORCED OR FAKE, WAS ONE OF THE REASONS SO MANY PEOPLE WERE DRAWN TO HER THROUGHOUT HER LIFE. AND WHY THE WORLD IS A LITTLE LESS BRIGHT WITHOUT HER.
SHE WAS ALSO UNCOMMONLY EASY-GOING, THE KIND OF PERSON WHO INSTINCTIVELY DIDNT SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF, UNLIKE SO MANY OF US.
SHE REINFORCED HER NATURAL OPTIMISM BY EFFORT AND HABIT. SHE CHOSE TO LOOK FOR THE GOOD, WHEREVER SHE COULD FIND IT. SHE ELECTED TO BE HOPEFUL IN MOST CIRCUMSTANCES, EVEN IN DIFFICULT RECENT TIMES SHE FACED AS HER HEALTH DECLINED.
THESE SMALL, PERSONAL CHOICES TO EMBRACE AND ACCEPT LIFE, TO VIEW OTHERS WITH KINDNESS AND COMPASSION, TO CHOOSE HOPE OVER DESPAIR THESE QUALITIES MADE HER GOOD. BUT EVEN MORE IMPORTANT, THEY MADE HER LIFE A GOOD EXAMPLE.
THERE ONCE WAS A WOMAN WHO LOVED TO SHARE FUNNY STORIES, AND WHO COULD GET SO CHOKED UP WITH LAUGHTER IN THE TELLING THAT HER EYES WOULD BRIM WITH TEARS, HER VOICE WOULD RISE AND CRACK, AND SHE COULD BARELY FINISH THE TALE.
MJS SENSE OF HUMOR WAS, LIKE HER OPTIMISM, ALSO NATURAL. HER KIND OF FUNNY WASNT FOUND IN JOKES OR ROTE COMEDY, BUT IN ABSURD SITUATIONS, COLORFUL CHARACTERS AND THE INVARIABLE RIDICULOUSNESS OF EVERYDAY LIFE.
IN REFLECTING ON HER LIFE AND ITS IMPACT ON THOSE AROUND HER, IVE RECENTLY COME TO REALIZE HOW DEEPLY MARY JANES HUMOROUS SENSIBILITY HAS BEEN IMPRINTED ON MY BROTHER, SISTER AND I. WHENEVER WERE TOGETHER, WE TEND TO TRADE THE KINDS OF ANECDOTES AND SNIPPETS OF HUMOR THAT WERE A BIG PART OF GROWING UP WITH A MOTHER LIKE MJ.
OF COURSE, IN OUR FAMILY MY MOM HAD TO HAVE A GOOD SENSE OF HUMOR, BECAUSE SHE WAS THE MOST FREQUENT TARGET OF THE FUN MAKING. IN FACT, HER DAFFINESS OFTEN MADE HER A SITTING DUCK.
SPEAKING OF SITTING DUCKS, HERES AN EXAMPLE THAT ACTUALLY INVOLVES SITTING AND DUCKING. IN THE 70S THERE WAS A POPULAR TV SHOW ABOUT THOSE POLICE UNITSCALLED SPECIAL WEAPONS AND TACTICS, OR SWAT TEAMSCALLED IN FOR HOSTAGE SITUATIONS.
SOMEHOW, MY MOM GOT THE IDEA THAT THESE ELITE UNITS WERE CALLED GET THIS SQUAT TEAMS. HER EXPLANATION: SHE ALWAYS SAW THEM SQUATTING BEHIND THE DOORS OF POLICE CARS WITH WEAPONS DRAWN.
WE HAVE AN ENORMOUS SUPPLY OF SUCH MOM MATERIAL. BUT THE REAL LESSON HERE IS HOW THIS GOOD WOMANS GOOD HUMOR LIFTED THOSE AROUND HER.
HER KIND OF HUMOR WASNT CYNICAL. IT WAS A LIFE-AFFIRMING, BOND-BUILDING, TENSION-BREAKING MINDSET. IT WAS MORE THAN THE BEST MEDICINE, IT WAS THE BEST PHILOSOPHY TOO.
GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT
THERE ONCE WAS A WOMAN WHO FELT SO FULFILLED AND FORTUNATE, THAT SHE LOVED GIVING BACK TO OTHERSNOT OUT OF A SENSE OF OBLIGATION OR GUILT, BUT OUT OF CARE AND A GENUINE DESIRE TO HELP OTHERS.
AS A YOUNG MOTHER IN MINNESOTA SHE LIKED TO VISIT OLDER FOLKS IN NURSING HOMES (AND DRAGGING HER SEMI-FRIGHTENED CHILDREN ALONG).
LATER SHE GAVE OF HERSELF THROUGH PROGRAMS SUCH AS WELCOME WAGON FOR NEWCOMERS IN NEW JERSEY, MEALS ON WHEELS AND OTHER PROGRAMS IN NORTH CAROLINA FOR THOSE WHO NEEDED BOTH PHYSICAL AND SOCIAL SUSTENANCE.
MARY JANES GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT WAS ONE OF THE WAYS THAT SHE WAS A GOOD CATHOLIC AND CHRISTIAN, ALMOST WITHOUT TRYING.
LIKE HER OPTIMISM AND HUMOR, HER OPEN HEART GREW ORGANICALLY FROM HER PERSONALITY: SHE WAS EXCEPTIONALLY WARM, LOVING AND GREGARIOUS. A SOCIAL CREATURE, AND SOCIALLY CURIOUS. MARYJANE WAS INTENTLY INTERESTED IN OTHER PEOPLE.
FOR EXAMPLE, FOR SEVERAL YEARS IN THE EARLY 90S MOM AND DAD COMMUTED INTO NEW YORK CITY TOGETHER, AND EVEN WORKED TOGETHER IN THE TOY BUSINESS. MOM BECAME FASCINATED WITH THE CAST OF CHARACTERS SHE SAW AMONG THE REGULAR COMMUTERS, AND WAS A KEEN OBSERVER OF THEIR HABITS AND PERSONALITIES. IN ANOTHER LIFE SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A WRITER.
(AS AN ASIDE, I MENTIONED THAT SHE WAS DEPRESSION-BABY FRUGAL. DURING HER TRAIN DAYS THAT WAS IN FORCE SHE WOULD WAIT FOR PASSENGERS TO GET OFF AND SHE WOULD PROUDLY SCOOP UP FREE COPIES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES, POST OR OTHER LEFT BEHIND READING MATERIAL.)
MOST PEOPLE LOVE THEIR OWN MOTHER. GROWING UP, I ALMOST TOOK IT FOR GRANTED HOW MUCH MOST PEOPLE LOVED MY MOTHER. ALL OF YOU .NEIGHBORS, RELATIVES, AND OUR OWN FRIENDS AND LOVED ONES FROM HIGH SCHOOL, COLLEGE AND BEYOND PROVED THAT THE APPEAL WAS PRETTY UNIVERSAL. I THINK MY MOTHERS SECRET WAS THAT SHE COULD MAKE ANYONE FEEL COMFORTABLE AND WELCOME.
IT IS UNSURPRISING THAT SHE LOVED HER CHILDREN, AND GAVE HER WHOLE LIFE TO HELPING US FIND OUR WAY, BUT THE KIND OF MOTHER SHE WAS IS WORTH NOTING. IN THE END, I HAVE NO DOUBT THAT IT IS ALSO PROBABLY THE THING SHE IS MOST PROUD OF.
AS ELLEN AND I RELATED TO HER ON PLAYGROUND BENCH IN TRYON, NORTH CAROLINA A FEW WEEKS BEFORE SHE PASSED AWAY, OUR EARLY CHILDHOOD WAS FILLED WITH FUN AND JOY. WE TOLD HER THAT WHAT SHE DID BEST, AS WE GREW, WAS STRIKE A DELICATE BALANCE BETWEEN PARENTAL CONTROL AND GIVING US ROOM TO GROW.
HER GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT WAS AT WORK IN HER ROLE OF FAMILY PEACEMAKER. LIKE MOST-- AND OURS IS FULL OF HIGHLY OPINIONATED PERSONALITIES -- MOM WAS ALWAYS THE ONE TO JUMP IN AND MEND FENCES.
SHE ALSO EFFECTIVELY PLAYED THE ROLE OF CONSOLER AND COUNSELOR IN CHIEF. WHETHER IT WAS SCRAPPED KNEES, SCHOOLWORK, ROMANCE TROUBLES, CAREER OR OTHER CONCERNS, SHE WAS ALWAYS ABLE TO OFFER SOMETHING BETTER THAN ADVICE: EMPATHY AND HER WILLING EAR.
IN SUM, HER SUBTLE, SIMPLE STYLE PLAYED A HUGE PART IN HELPING US TO BECOME PRETTY WELL ADJUSTED AND ACCOMPLISHED ADULTS.
FIVE YEARS AGO, I MIGHT HAVE HESITATED TO SAY THAT MARY JANES GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT WAS SEEING HER CHILDREN GROW AND PROSPER. BUT NOW THAT ERIC, ELLEN AND I ARE ALL PARENTS, I THINK WE BETTER APPRECIATE THE MAGNITUDE AND MEANINGFULNESS OF THAT KIND OF SATISFACTION. I ONLY HOPE THAT WE CAN APPLY THE LESSONS OF GOOD PARENTING THAT SHE AND DAD HAVE GIVEN US BY THEIR EXAMPLE.
AND IN THE END
OF COURSE, ALL PARABLES MUST COME TO AN END, JUST AS THE STORY OF MARY JANES LIFE HAS COME TO A CLOSE.
THERE ONCE WAS A GOOD WOMAN NAMED MARY JANE HASTINGS MASON. SHE LOVED A MAN, RAISED A FAMILY AND IN THE COURSE OF 74 YEARS QUIETLY TOUCHED ALL THOSE AROUND HER. HER OPTIMISM, GOOD HUMOR AND GENEROSITY SHOULD INSPIRE US ALL.
SHE HAD A LIGHTNESS OF SPIRIT AND A SOFT, SOOTHING VOICE. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL AND SPECIAL IN MANY TRANSCENDENT WAYS. SHE IS LOVED, EVEN AS SHE HAS BEEN LOST.
IN THE END, THE MAN SHE HAD DEVOTED HERSELF TO, AND WHO SHE ADORED, OUR FATHER JACK, WAS THERE FOR HER IN HER LAST MOMENT. HE GREATLY HONORED MY MOTHER BY WORKING INCREDIBLY HARD TO CARE FOR HER IN EVERY WAY IN THE TRYING MONTHS LEADING UP TO HER DEATH, WITH THE INVALUABLE HELP OF THE ANGELS OF MERCY AT FOOTHILLS HOSPICE IN NORTH CAROLINA.
AS I SAID EARLIER, A PARABLE CHALLENGES LISTENERS TO FIND AND CREATE MEANING FROM THE FABRIC OF A SIMPLE STORY. FROM THE FABRIC OF MY MOTHERS LIFE I HOPE YOU CAN SEARCH FOR AND FIND DEEPER MEANING IN YOUR OWN. AND I LEAVE YOU WITH ONE LAST THOUGHT.
A DAY OR TWO BEFORE SHE DIED, MARY JANE SAID SHE FELT THAT EVERYTHING WAS MAGNIFIED. THIS HEIGHTENED SENSE MAY BE THE BYPRODUCT OF THE DYING PROCESS, BUT I ONLY HOPE THAT IT CAN
BECOME PART OF OUR LIVING PROCESS A RICHER, MORE AWARE SENSE OF THE PRECIOUSNESS OF THE WORLD, OF EACH OTHER AND OF THE POWER OF THE MOMENT.
IN FACT, I SHARED AN APHORISM WITH MY DAD ON THIS SUBJECT ONLY A FEW WEEKS AGO . THE PAST IS ALWAYS BEHIND US, THE FUTURE ALWAYS IN FRONT. THE NOW IS A GIFT. THAT IS WHY IT IS CALLED THE PRESENT.
ON THAT HOPEFUL NOTE, JUST THE KIND MJ WOULD WANT TO END ON, I THANK YOU FOR BEING PRESENT WITH US TODAY IN LOVING MEMORY OF MARY JANE.
REQUIEM FOR MARY JANE BY HER DEVESTATED HUSBAND
REQUIEM FOR MARY JANE
N THE WEEKS JUST BEFORE SHE DIED, JANUARY 20, 2008
I want to record what it's like for me to witness and participate in a process that will end in the death of the person that I love above all others. This urge stems from trying to understand and accept the Will of God, while at the same time coming to grips with how inescapable is my impending, devastating loss. How, when my life was so enriched, so filled with Mary Jane's goodness can I ever survive her absence? How will I face life without her when she made we out of me for almost 50 years?
It is particularly hard to put into words because I'm struggling so to find and sort them out. When I try they seem to escape my grasp. I can only hope to break free of my confusion and find those words, so that our children, and their children might better remember who this wonderful women and her faithful husband were.
IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING HER DEATH ON FEB 1, 2008
Now it has ended. On this rainy Friday morning my darling softly, slowly, calmly exhaled her last breath. I was there and I shall never be the same. I'm tempted to relate the morbid physiology of her death: The sad and pitiful decline of body and mind, her melancholy struggle to understand, to accept & then to transcend death with the triumph of her salvation. But somehow that all seems off the point, if only because I can't really say I knew what she actually went through. No one can. Dying is the most private of all human experiences, and what it's like will be made known to us only when we lie on our own deathbed.
Instead I want to tell you that I held her hand, stroked her hair, watched and listened to that final exhalation with a sadness that is beyond description. I pondered her serene face, grateful that she was emancipated from pain & suffering. I begged God to take her in His embrace. I was stunned with the paralyzing realization that it was over. She was gone, and with her went my heart. All I could do was kiss her one last time, and tearfully ask Christ for mercy.
I know that time is supposed to moderate the pain, that the future will take care of itself...that the frightening prospect of not hearing her voice, her laughter, her off-key singing will be blunted by the turn of the seasons, the tick of the clock. With God's help I pray it will.
ONE MONTH AFTER HER PASSING, MARCH 1, 2008
Before my Mary Jane's passing, I really was not much focused on my own mortality. In all the years before death became a threat to MJ, I was quite unconcerned about my own longevity. It just seemed too distant to really worry about. But in the months before she died I became acutely aware of my own tentative existence, particularly as it connected to being my dear wife's caregiver. During this time I saw myself as so necessary to being there for her that I prayed God to spare me, at least until she was gone. Melodramatic, maybe, but she deserved nothing less and I'm thankful God answered my prayers.
Now that it's a month since Mary Jane left this world, I have once again been drawn to an awareness of my own mortality. Our silent house reminds me that the silence of my own death may not be very far away. After all I am 75. But I'm determined not to wallow in a maudlin hangover, feeling sorry for myself and all that I've lost. What's important now is to live those months or years left to me with an optimistic dignity that would honor the memory of Mary Jane. I'll try to do all that I can to make that happen. I'll try to approach each and every day mindful of how rich & wonderful were all those many years we had together. I'll never forget how she made me a part of we, and that for us till death do us part is only a temporary separation.
TWO MONTHS SINCE I LOST MY MARY JANE
I'm still a bit dazed by how Mom's death has transformed my life. In the two months since her passing my heart & head have been spinning in such a confusion of emotions that it's hard for me to tell you precisely how I'm doing...because there are no words to adequately describe, even to myself, how much I miss her. Although I had 18 months to prepare, the silent reality is that she's gone, and I'm still trying my best to face up to it.
But face up to it I will because that's what Mom would have wanted. More than just survive, in the long run I'm sure I'll be OK. After all, your mother & I have spent our entire lives committed to a faith that promises us reunion, and the anticipation of that reunion is my greatest comfort. Without it I think carrying on would be unbearable.
As you know, I'll be spending much of the summer traveling and staying connected with life; going places & seeing people that had Mom not gotten so sick, we would have done together. Corny as it may sound, during these travels I'm sure her spirit will be at my side.
So, for now I want to assure you that I'm managing, and my hope is that you'll do the same...for I have no monopoly on missing your Mom and my Mary Jane.
6 MONTHS LATER
it's been 6 months since we lost Mom, and I miss her as much now as the day she died. I miss seeing her, I miss her open arms inviting me to a hug, I miss looking into her beautiful eyes... I even miss her smell. But most of all, I miss hearing her voice, her laughter...the voice that touched my soul, the smiley stuttering laugh that warmed my heart. I miss, terribly, just not being able to talk to her.
My world without Mom has been turned upside-down. One day I think I'm moving on, the next I'm not so sure...and all of this in spite of knowing for 18 months this was coming.
Well worn clichés "time heals all", "life goes on", and "memories will provide comfort & solace"...have all been given a chance even though the first two old saws have yet to play out. But the adage about memories providing comfort & solace doesn't seem to work for me. I know because I've tried it. Looking back, at least for now, heightens rather than diminishes my melancholy.
Yes, my life with Mom was routine, perhaps even hum-drum...but it was happy & fulfilling. My life 6 months later is even more routine and hum-drum...and a lot less happy. Without Mom it all seems so empty and confusing. If that sounds sappy and ungrateful for the comforting pride, joy and delight your Mother & I shared in our family, I'm sorry...because I don't mean it that way....without your presence & support my problems would only be worse...much worse. Our recent get together on BHI brought this home to me very vividly.
Where all this will lead, I really don't know. I can only do what seems to work for me, and at this time in my life I think looking ahead is my best strategy. But how I'll ever fill that enormous hole inside me remains my biggest and most worrisome challenge. Volunteer work, making new friends, travelling...these are the projects that I intend to pursue. Until recently I was almost certain my shaky health would cause me to cross the river first, and with that assumption went the natural worries I had about how Mom would carry on, especially given her declining health. So, when Mom was recovering, but battered by her chemo treatments, I began getting in shape to be better able to take care of her...and because doing so pleased her. Now my well being has improved to the point that I have to protect it for what it truly is...a gift from God.
And finally, I want you to know that I'm fully aware that losing Mom is our mutual loss. But my loss is uniquely mine & mine alone. I want very much to get beyond where I am, and I need your love and prayers to help me get there...just as Mom would have wanted. My personal struggle now is to overcome my grief sufficiently to make enjoyable the life that is left to me. My personal challenge now is to disabuse myself of the notion that I'm the world's most bereft widower...and that retreating into a cave of despair is a dangerous temptation I must...and will...resist.
NINE MONTHS LATER 11/1/08
For nearly nine months since I lost Mom, I've been very much consumed missing her and struggling with an unexpectedly tormenting loneliness. Being lonely & missing Mom has not ceased, but I think the passing of time, my good health, and meeting new people has inspired a more hopeful and less melancholy attitude re whatever future I've got left. I also think that after surviving this rough patch, I'm better off staying put in Tryon. In that connection, I'm currently spending time & money getting carpets replaced, and my house interior/ kitchen cabinets painted. All of this should provide more enjoyment living here, and more market value... just in case. Let's all hope for the best...
FEB 1, 2010
It's Feb 1, 2010, the second anniversary of Mom death.
I need to try to explain, first to me, and then to you, how I feel about these most profound two years of my life.
I'll spare you the confusion of trying to describe my dislocations in detail, because I'd surely get lost in a maze of emotions, which are painfully personal, and most of which I can't adequately explain, even to myself.
However, at the bottom of it all is a very persistent reality. I still miss my Mary Jane very much. I spend much of my time unsuccessfully trying not to think of her, trying not to be a glum bum, and trying to do my best to appear a composed if not a merry widower. But it really takes a lot of effort.
My lonelines...emptiness might be a better word...seems to be hanging on longer than I expected, at least from what I see in other widowed seniors. That this is still happening is neither an appeal for sympathy or a complaint. It just is what it is, so not to worry. I'm working hard at fighting it, because frankly I know this stuff wears thin.
I also know the importance of staying busy, keeping in touch with friends and relatives, getting out of the house, reading, staying fit, traveling, spending time with Helen, etc, etc. All of that said I am trying to get off my butt & do more make-busy-stuff even though so many of my dilettante interests and passions also died February 1, 2008.
If after all my whining it sounds contradictory to say I'll be OK, then that's the contradiction that best defines my life now. I'm trying very hard to concentrate on my blessings, stick it out here for as long as I can, and treasure each day that I'm not that poor soul who from his deathbed stares out a hospital window at the end of his world.
So, please accept this let-it-all-hang-out letter from your father who has no one but you to confide it to; who longs for Mom every day, but who knows that in order to get to a better place I can and must travel this melancholy road alone and with dignity. It won't ever be the same, but it will be OK...please believe that. Mom & I love you, and need your prayers.
After my wife died a year ago it could be said I hadnt a care in the world. My health was good, I was comfortable in my retirement, and I lived in a wonderful part of the country. All of that was and still is true.
But now I can see the melancholy that hit me so hard following her loss was precisely because I didnt have a care in the world. I didnt know that for me, freedom from having others need me was really not freedom, but bondage.
I think I know better now.
All my adult life I have had responsibility to someone, or something. Until Feb 1 2008, my obligations to my family and my career absorbed most of the past 60 years, shaped & confirmed my identity. At her death, Mary Jane was the only remaining responsibility I had from this former life. Yes, these duties were not weightless, but they were nevertheless the central focus of my life for all those years. They were my reason for living, and were my lifes accomplishments. Now they were gone.
Sure, I still had my children & my grandchildren but they have their own lives, they have their independence. My debt to them is settled. They love me as I love them, but they no longer need me, as indeed they shouldnt.
I suddenly found myself with no one depending upon me. There were only my own wants & needs to be managed and because I was so out of touch with my new identity as a solo player in life, I had no clue what those needs were.
But finally Ive come to my senses. Finally I understand that to get I must first give. Finally I understand I truly want to bring joy to someone else, someone new and that this is the only path to my own bliss.
All of that said, I have to admit as of today I havent yet fully deflected my actions & thoughts away from myself. I have however, found someone who I need, but just as importantly, who in time Im certain will need me as well. My ambition now is to contribute to & expand her happiness, as I know she will contribute to & expand my happiness. Im convinced this is the only way for me, or any of us to be truly alive. Yes, we can go it alone, but thats just existence, not fulfillment. And who but the foolish would, given the choice, opt for emptiness? Consider those poor souls never given the choice
At the very least I think Im back on track and with Gods help all will end well.
Mary Jane, Mary Jane
Mary Jane, Mary Jane
So sweet and warm
As a soft summer rain..
Mary Jane, Mary Jane
Since you have gone
only sleep blunts my pain
Mary Jane, Mary Jane
God's Angels smile
At the sound of your name
Mary Jane, Mary Jane
I will hold you again
FOUR YEARS LATER
It's been four years since we lost Mom.
For me it has been four long years...and although I have learned to manage the hurt, I miss her more than ever.
During this time I have tried not to get stuck in the past, and I've made many new friends who have enhanced, if not fulfilled my life.
But for all of this, and with the perspective of this time without her, it's more clear than ever that Mary Jane Mason was the most remarkable person I ever met...let alone loved.
I am not idealizing, or engaging in addled senior sentimentality when I tell you that my heart and head better appreciate today how she was the best wife any man could have... how she was the best sister, any sister could have...how she was the best friend any friend could have..., and how she was the best mother and Grandma any child could ever have had.
Her compassion, humor, selflessness, and plain old smiling decency...was her gift to all of us. But in my case, I look back upon our 1958 meeting and our life together, as nothing less than a gift of God's special blessing.
Like the song say's, darling Mary Jane, "there will never ever be... another you"
Dad, FEB 1, 2012
HASTINGS FAMILY TREE
James Hastings 1823-1875 Wife unknown
James Hugh Hastings 1856-1919 wife Nora
Long died 1901
Remarried Agnes Lyons, 1905
James Edgar Hastings (MJ's father) 1889-1961 Ellen Veronica Kane (MJ's mother) 1892-1961
Anne (Hastings) Rooney (1929) Eileen (Hastings) Rutter 1931 Mary Jane (Hastings) Mason (1934)
MASON FAMILY TREE
Anne Mason John Mason
John Mason Robert (Buck) Mason Martha Mason Annie Mason
(Catherine Rogan) (Lilly?) (Charles Dafeldecker) ("Hennie" Fisher)
John Robert Ann George
Francis Vincent Doris Harry
Catherine Lilly Dorothy
BALD HEAD ISLAND, JULY 2009
BALD HEAD ISLAND, JULY 2009
2009 marks our fifth annual clan gathering here on Bald Head Island, NC. In recent years our get togethers were attended by all the Masons the Manhattan, Maplewood NJ, Hong Kong, and the NC Masons from Tryon, 300 miles to the west. But because of house renovations and other projects, the Maplewood contingent, Jack, Jessica and their two little boys, Owen and Eamon are not in attendance this summer. We miss them, as we also deeply miss dear Grandma who left us Feb 1, 2008.
Our first family get together was in 2004 when our son Eric, and his wife Angie bought the four bedroom beach house in the maritime woods section of the island. It was a time in their life when their careers were going full speed & investing in real estate was, for them, a good idea and a realized dream. We all of us so enjoyed this first family vacation, that weve pretty much committed ourselves to making it an annual affair. And so we have.
Fortunately, in the face of the current global economic downturns, Angie & Eric are able to continue to afford and enjoy their US home even if they only get here once a year. In their absence, Jade Oak is available for rent, and of course we other members of the clan gratefully get to use it from time to time when it isnt leased. For all of these upscale amenities, I would remind you that BHI is no snooty, elitist playground for the privileged.
This is a great place to play hooky from the race for folks who like outdoor action, fine dining, and a beautiful, calming environment. From what I see, most of its summer residents are 40 something, hard working, handsome couples with two or three grammar school aged blonde headed kids trailing after them. I also suspect its these demographics that shape the islands activities, and relaxed, family friendly personality. Oh, yes there are others smiley, indulgent grandparents, singles, and a mix of visitors. You often see the latter, pulled over on the side of a road, consulting a map to locate just where they are, or where they want to go. These, I suspect are prospective future Bald Head Islanders.
Interestingly, at a chance meeting with a member of the Mitchell family, the island developers Kent Mitchell told us that most visitors to BHI fall into one of two groups. One group loves the laid back atmosphere & lifestyle of the island, the other hates it! So, I guess its fair to say that as wonderful as Bald Head is, its not for everyone. Currently the 1000 homes on the island represent about one half of the maximum development on the planning boards.
Well conditioned men and women sport faded t-shirts that identify connections with Wake Forest, Duke, North Carolina, South Carolina, Clemson, Auburn, Vanderbilt, and other southern area universities. This is natural since most BHI people are, as you might suspect, from Dixie. But there are also many chesty advertisements for Cornell, Columbia, Northwestern, UCLA, Yale, etc that reveal the identities of people from many other parts of the country. Kids wear clothes that inform us of their connection with little league baseball, soccer, and hockey teams. Seems like everyone on vacation has an impulse to show where theyre from!
As an interesting aside to conventional t-shirt displays, I did see a very funny one that was unsophisticatedly hilarious. The wearer claimed Im from Southport NC, a town with no village drunk. We all take turns.! For my money his shirt will be long remembered for its clever, unexpected humor, and a big improvement over the sappy disclaimer that this shirt is The Property Of
Eric and Angies house sits in the middle of a grove of live oaks dripping with hanging bundles of Spanish moss, amidst swishing palm trees of all sizes and shapes. On one side of the property is an overgrown empty lot, on the other a spec house for sale for 1.8 million dollars. And just behind is a pond that is home to turtles, egrets, gators (or so they say since weve never seen one), and in the nearby trees perches an occasional Osprey taking a rest. Because the house is painted a light green color, and because Eric & family live in Hong Kong, Erics wife Angie came up with a very appropriate, mindful of Asia, name. So, this wonderful Shangri-La we now think of as Jade Oak.
BHI is a unique seaside development on that promontory of land known as Cape Fear. It is reachable only by ferry, locates near the southern boundary of the Outer banks, and is the northern most reach of the semi tropics in the USA. Although in NC, BHI is only 50 miles north of the very popular and densely populated Myrtle Beach SC areas. It is an isolated island community developed and owned by a company that prefers good-taste planning to unplanned sprawl. Some environmentalists proffer the idea that the future of coastline development in the US would do well to use Bald Head Island as a model.
The Mitchells keep up the infra structure, provide the social, dining, recreational services, as well as the supermarket shopping needs of BHI folks. The emphasis is on making this an idyllic retreat that is safe, family friendly, and without the hullabaloo of free-for-all commercialization so common to east coast beachfront communities. Even automobiles are absent, kept in their place and out of sight at a mainland parking lot.
After departing the ferry terminal in Southport, NC, the arrived visitor to BHI has to get about with a golf cart. For visitors carts are available to rent, but most islanders own their own vehicles; and many of these little electric buggies feature tongue-in-cheek styling that converts the golf-course look, to something very stylized. One can see humming along the narrow island roadways whimsical mini versions of jeeps, four wheeled alligators, Volkswagen bugs, comical Rolls Royce look alikes, etc. Bikes are very popular alternatives for getting about. Much is also seen of sweaty, red faced men and women who use vacation time to bicycle and jog or should I say punish themselves into better shape. The chubbier puffing novices stand out from those who are clearly not just summer exercisers. But better to be in the game, than not, dontchathink?
And so it goes, this July 2009 on Bald Head Island.
Wish you were here .Jack Mason, July 12, 2009
It was the middle of Apr 2016. The Havanese breeder in Rock Hill SC called us to tell us a 3 month old puppy was available if we were ready. This was a pleasant surprise because previously we thought we could not expect one before Dec.
We had discussed the idea of Jack giving me a puppy as a token of his appreciation for helping him get through a pretty tough physical ordeal 5 months earlier. Now it was a reality!
Mickey (a name I pulled out the air) is now a 7 month old
black & white delight. Our home on Winged Elm Circle is now being shared with our mini polar bear looking furry angel, his toys laying all about testifying to his presence.
Havaneses are in the Bichon family, a breed developed by colonial Spanish aristocrats in Cuba that max out at about 12 lbs. They are by nature friendly, social, agile and quick learners which makes them a popular choice for circus entertainment dogs, and they are growing in popularity by dog lovers all over the world.
We’ve had many cute experiences since Mickey came into our lives. He dutifully sits, lies down & dances with gusto whenever we give him a treat.
But his funniest reaction is to rush between us when we pretend to smooch, demanding he join our ménage a trios with wide eyed and vigorous doggy kisses lavished simultaneously on both of us.
Now anyone interested in meeting Mickey or learning more about our happy times together, and info on his breed can feel free to call me at 648-3220
Jack Mason (273 words)