Archive for the ‘People’ Category

People Who’ve Made a Difference: The Ravishing and Brilliant Hedy Lamarr

December 23, 2017

A Beginning in Sex and Scandal

lamarr 1Her early life was scandalous. She appeared naked, on the movie screen, running through the woods and swimming in a lake, the first woman ever shown in the altogether.

That was in Ecstasy, made in Czechoslovakia in 1933. She also acted out sexual climax, writhing and moaning in a bliss that would have made Meg Ryan blush. Her films were luscious cinematic forbidden fruit, banned almost everywhere. Benito Mussolini owned and treasured a personal copy of Ecstasy.

And she was beautiful. Hedwig Kiesler had a perfect face, raven hair, and a slim delicate figure. Men lusted for her. The first man to have her – that’s not the right word, nobody ever truly had her – was Friedrich Mandl, the first of her six husbands.

He was one of the richest men is Austria. She was his trophy wife. His company, Hirtenberger Patronenfabrik, sold ammunition and was the one of the leading arms makers in Europe. He was a Fascist sympathizer, supplying the war machines of anyone who’d buy his wares.

Mandl showcased Hedwig at dinners and banquets with the likes of Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. She acted the part of a brainless beauty. She often said that the secret of glamor was to “stand there and look stupid.” So she did. It was a superb performance, maybe the best acting job of her career.

Hedwig Kiesler was a genius. Daughter of a Jewish banker, she had excelled in school, especially in math and science. She was born in Vienna on November 9, 1914. She quit school at 16 to study acting. In the late 1920’s Hedy was discovered and brought to Berlin by director and acting instructor Max Reinhardt. Following her training in the theater, she returned to Vienna and began to work in the film industry. She married Mandl, who was 30 years older than she, in 1933.

Eavesdropping Inside the Third Reich

When her husband and the evil dictators sat around talking shop, she sat there, looked pretty, and took it all in. She knew what they were talking about, and she knew what they were up to.

A favorite topic of Adolf Hitler was military technology, especially of the type that could control missiles and torpedoes by radio. Wireless control of weapons would be a huge jump from the hard-wired methods then in use. Wireless did come into use during the 1940s, by both Allies and Axis forces. But it was single-frequency radio, easy to monitor, detect, and jam.

According to one account, Mandl and Hitler engaged in a drunken menage à trois after a dinner party. Mandl was desperate to cement a big arms deal. The third party in the threesome was his gorgeous wife. That story is from a widely-panned book, What Almost Happened to Hedy Lamarr, and its truth is in doubt.

Even if it is true, that may or may not have been the final straw for Kiesler. As a Jew, she came to hate Nazis. She despised her husband’s business ambitions, and she did not share her thoughts about science and technology. If anything, she would share her information with the Allies who were fighting against the Nazis.

The radio-controlled guidance system for torpedoes that she heard discussed never got into production because it was too susceptible to disruption. Somewhere along the way she got the idea of distributing the guidance signal over several frequencies. This would protect it from enemy jamming. But she still had to figure out how to synchronize the transmitter and receiver. The solution would come to her later.

Hedy and Mandl

Hedy and Mandl

Mandl came to know how she felt about him, and he kept her locked up in his castle, Schloss Schwarzenau. He had also forbade her to pursue acting, and tried to buy up all copies of Ecstasy.

In 1937, Hedwig escaped by drugging her maid and sneaking out of the castle wearing the maid’s clothes. She sold her jewelry to finance a trip to London.

Hedwig made it out of Austria just in time. Hitler annexed the country in 1938 and took over Mandl’s business. Mandl was half-Jewish, so being an arms supplier to the Third Reich was no help to him. He had to flee to Argentina, where he eventually became an adviser to Juan Peron.

Into the Movies

In London, Kiesler arranged a meeting with the Hollywood film titan Louis B. Mayer. He knew of her, of course, and he too was captivated by her beauty. On the voyage to America she signed a long-term contract and became one of MGM’s biggest stars of the time.

Hedy and Paul Henreid in "The Conspirators"

Hedy and Paul Henreid in “The Conspirators”

She was in more than 20 films, costarring with Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Paul Henreid, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and others. Algiers, White Cargo, and Samson and Delilah were among her biggest screen successes. Unfortunately for Hedy, she turned down the lead in both Casablanca and Gaslight.

She made and spent, by some accounts, at least $30 million. The mansion used in filming The Sound of Music in 1965 belonged to her at the time. Her film career went into decline after Samson and Delilah in 1949.

Film fame and the showbiz scene didn’t do it all for Hedy Lamarr. She didn’t care much for the world of glitz, parties, and paparazzi. She wanted more. She wanted use her money, power, and formidable intellect to defeat the Nazis. She found an ally in composer/musician George Antheil.

Her Only True Partner

George Antheil

George Antheil

Antheil was an interesting individual too. His 1945 autobiography, The Bad Boy of Music, was a best seller. He was born in New Jersey in 1900 and showed promise as a musician and composer. He lived in Paris, and then in Berlin, from 1923 to 1933 when he returned to America. He also wrote books and a nationally syndicated advice column, wrote regularly for Music World and Esquire, and was a major figure in American ballet.

Antheil made his way to Hollywood to write musical scores for movies. He thought that the movie industry was hostile to modern music, however, and had little personal regard for Hollywood. He also saw Nazism for what it was. One of his magazine articles, “The Shape of the War to Come,” accurately predicted both the outbreak and eventual outcome of World War II. He joined up with Oscar Hammerstein and others in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

Antheil and Lamarr were ideological soul mates. But that’s not what brought them together initially. He also claimed to be an expert on female endocrinology. He had written a series of articles about how to determine the availability of women based on “glandular effects” on their appearance. They had titles like “The Glandbook for the Questing Male” and another on “glandular criminology” titled “Every Man His Own Detective.”

Lamarr first sought out Antheil for help in “augmenting her upper torso,” as one web site nicely puts it. She had him over for dinner after scrawling her phone number in lipstick on his windshield after leaving a party. He suggested glandular extracts of some sort, but their talk evidently turned to technology and how it might be used to fight Hitler. Perhaps technology talk was unavoidable; she had a drafting table in her living room.

Antheil’s most famous musical work was the thoroughly avant-garde Ballet Mechanique. The work’s orchestration first called for 16 player pianos, along with two regular pianos, xylophones, electric bells, propellers, siren, and bass drums. It was hard to keep so many player pianos synchronized, so he scaled it back to a single set of piano rolls and augmented the regular pianos with several additional instruments. It produced an entirely new brand of stereophonic sound.

The Technological Breakthrough and Patent

Antheil’s expertise with player pianos was just what Hedy Lamarr needed. She wanted to design a system of controlling torpedoes that would also be hard or impossible for the enemy to jam. Single-frequency radio control was vulnerable to jamming, as she knew. If they could find a way to “change the channel” at random intervals, the torpedoes could make their way to the target.

Hedy incorporated Antheil’s method for synchronizing his player pianos. The coordination of frequency signals was done with paper player-piano rolls. Then she was able to synchronize the frequency changes between a weapon’s receiver and its transmitter. This “frequency hopping” used a piano roll to make random changes over 88 frequencies. It was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 for a “Secret Communication diagramSystem” was granted to Antheil and Hedy Kiesler Markey, which was Kiesler’s married name at the time. They turned the patent rights over to the U.S. Navy, and unfortunately they never made any money from their brilliant invention.

The Navy did not end up building radio-controlled torpedoes. They might not have taken the idea seriously; after all, it came from a gorgeous woman and a flaky musician. There were also some big additional hurdles to overcome before such a system could be used with waterborne ordnance. The Navy did ask her to use her good looks to sell War Bonds, though. She agreed, and bestowed kisses for a purchase price of $50,000.

But the Navy did use Lamarr’s system beginning in 1950. It first controlled sonobuoys, the floating listening posts that detect submarines. In the sixties, it was used for secure ship-to-ship communications during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. Reconnaissance drones used in Vietnam also employed frequency hopping.

Every time you dial your cell phone, take a call on it, or log onto the Internet, you can thank Hedy Lamarr. Her invention, conceived to fight the Nazis and now called “spread spectrum,” is the foundation of all wireless communication.

“Long-term evolution,” or “LTE,” technology, is just an extension of Hedy and George’s frequency-hopping. Spread spectrum is also the key element in anti-jamming devices used in the government’s $25 billion Milstar system. Milstar satellites control all the intercontinental missiles in U.S. weapons arsenal.

Dozens of “citing patents” owned by the likes of Sony, AT&T, and Seagate now appear on the Patent Office page for Hedy Lamarr’s Secret Communication System. The latest of them was filed in 2009.

After the Glamor Fled

Micro Times magazine with coverage of Lamarr's achievements in technology

Micro Times magazine with coverage of Lamarr’s achievements in technology

The last half of this remarkable woman’s life was not happy. True, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr her a long-overdue award for her work in 1996. Her son Anthony Loder accepted it for her because she no longer appeared in public. She also received the prestigious Austrian Academy of Science Award from her native country.

All six of Hedy’s marriages ended in divorce. Some of her quotes about her experiences there are revealing:

“I must quit marrying men who feel inferior to me. Somewhere there must be a man who could be my husband and not feel inferior. I need a superior inferior man.”

“Perhaps my problem in marriage–and it is the problem of many women–was to want both intimacy and independence. It is a difficult line to walk, yet both needs are important to a marriage.”

“I have not been that wise. Health I have taken for granted. Love I have demanded, perhaps too much and too often. As for money, I have only realized its true worth when I didn’t have it.”

Lamarr’s last movie appearance was in 1958. Her eye-candy roles had never required much acting anyway. She was usually cast as the mysterious and ravishing femme fatale. She’d often been called the most beautiful woman in the world. But when other, younger stars came along, she had fewer and fewer opportunities. She underwent plastic surgery that didn’t help. She had money problems and was twice arrested for shoplifting.

She also launched a number of lawsuits. These included going after Mel Brooks for his silly “That’s Hedley Lamarr!” in Blazing Saddles, and suing Corel Draw for using her image on packages. Both suits were settled out of court. She also wrote an autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, in the 1960s, and ended up suing the publisher.

Hedy lived her final years in seclusion in Florida, her eyesight failing and out of touch with the world that her scientific genius has helped immeasurably. She died in 2000 and was cremated. At her request, her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods of her native land.

I Wish I’d Known Her

Anthony Loder once said that his mother never got the chance to grow old gracefully. He also stated that he wished she had talked more to him. There was so much he never was able to ask her. She was frequently on the phone with show-business people, he remarked – Greta Garbo, Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck, Louis Mayer, and many others. I wonder, though, if she ever truly revealed herself to another person. Much of what ought to be known about her remains hidden.

One of the greatest satisfactions I get in my work is to hear someone say, “You captured him (or her) in that article.” When I can discover and tell of things that should be known about people, I feel that I’ve done a good deed, both for my subject and for posterity.

How I wish I’d had the opportunity to capture the fabulous Hedy Lamarr. Yes, she was a rich and pampered glamor girl, and we have too many of them. Much of her biography reads like a supermarket tabloid.

But there was so much more to Hedy. She saw monstrous evil. She looked it in the face and escaped its clutches. She made it out of Adolf Hitler’s world, and could have lived an opulent and decadent life. But she decided to do something about the evil she’d seen.

There had to be enormous goodness in her soul, enormous strength in her character. I doubt that anyone was ever allowed to see that goodness and strength for what they were, and then to tell her entire story. We’re the poorer for it.

This blog post is the best I can do for her and for you, dear reader. Danke schoen, Hedwig Kiesler. Sie möge in Frieden ruhen.

Remembering Len Ceglarski

December 19, 2017

I covered college hockey for the Hockey News from 1969 to 1987, and was color radio commentator for Boston College hockey from 1973 to 1980. I’d like to share some of my memories of Len Ceglarski from those years.

Leonard S. Ceglarski passed away at the age of 91 on Saturday, December 16, 2017. Memories and tributes from the world of sport have been flowing in.  As well they should.

Len Ceglarski, coach

When Lenny retired from coaching college hockey in 1992, he was the all-time winningest coach in the game, with 673 wins over 34 seasons.  The first 14 seasons and 254 wins were at Clarkson College of Technology (now Clarkson University ) in Potsdam, New York.  The last 20 seasons and 419 wins were at his alma mater, Boston College.

Len had succeeded the man who was his college coach, John “Snooks” Kelley, on that lofty winningest-ever perch.  Now that spot belongs to Jerry York, a man to whom Lenny gave his first job in hockey.  Not a bad tradition.

Jerry was Lenny’s first assistant coach at Clarkson, a small school in a one-horse town about 50 miles from the Canadian border.  During Lenny’s time, they played in a drafty old barn on an ice surface that had a neutral zone that was much shorter than regulation size.  As soon as players broke out of their own end, they’d be at the opponent’s blue line. It was a building more suited to peewee hockey than to college varsity play.

But Len Ceglarski made Clarkson’s teams into a perennial power in Eastern college hockey. Rarely did they miss the ECAC playoffs at the Boston Garden.  Three times they finished runners-up in the NCAA finals. Until York arrived for the last few years of his tenure, Lenny ran the show all by himself – the recruiting, the on-ice coaching, the scouting. He even had his children draw up designs and color schemes for the Clarkson team jerseys.

Len Ceglarski, player

When Snooks Kelley announced his impending retirement from BC after the 1971-72 season, the job was Len Ceglarski’s if he wanted it. He was an alumnus who had an impressive run at a place with fewer resources than BC. There would be no debate.  That’s what we all believed and hoped anyway.

But Lenny didn’t approach BC athletic director Bill Flynn right away, and many very fine candidates applied. Two of the more impressive interviewees were Arlington High legend Eddie Burns, a BC man, and Tim Taylor of Harvard. Had Ceglarski not accepted the position, Taylor may well have been picked.

Finally, Flynn called Len to ask if he was interested.  He was, and that was that. He and wife Ursula and their six sons moved back to Massachusetts form the North Country.

The first time I met Ceglarski was in 1969 at McHugh Forum. It was after a Tuesday night ECAC quarterfinal playoff. Clarkson knocked off host BC, 4-2, and was headed yet again to the Garden. A kid named John Halme scored two or three goals.

Lenny came up to the press row to talk to a couple of reporters. I don’t remember what was said, but I do recall thinking that he seemed like a genuinely nice man.  He also must be a good coach too; his team had lost 7-2 to BC during the regular season.  BC’s team was very talented. Tim Sheehy and his classmates were in their prime, as juniors, and Paul Hurley was back on defense for his final year after playing in the 1968 Olympics.

The following year, 1969-70, I began covering the game for the Hockey News. I went to my first game up in Potsdam late in February.  BC had already begun a disastrous second-half slide – they lost 8 of their last 11 games – but they put up a good battle before losing 7-5. At one point, with BC on the power play, the puck skipped up into the stands. The clock operator let seven seconds run off before stopping it. The officials either ignored it or didn’t see it.

That year was the last one for Ned Harkness at Cornell.  Since the mid-60s, Cornell, with a roster full of Toronto-bred junior players, had been the Red Menace.  They were feared and, for the most part, hated.  In 1969-70, Harkness’s team went undefeated, 29-0, and won the national championship.  Clarkson lost to them 3-2 in the ECAC final at the Garden. In that game, Cornell scored in the last minute. They won again over Clarkson, 6-4, in the NCAA final at Lake Placid.

Those two losses were most unfortunate. You see, Lenny was just about the only coach in the East who could beat Cornell regularly. It was almost impossible for anyone to win in Ithaca; Clarkson beat Cornell 7-0 down there at one point, then by 2-1 two years later. So how did old Ned Harkness address his situation? By refusing to schedule Clarkson.

Harkness was the polar opposite of Ceglarski. Yes, he always had good teams and he drove them to near-perfection. But he was a bandit, a schlemiel, and a scoundrel.  If an opposing team had a breakaway against his goaltender, all of a sudden the arena lights would go out.  The opponents’ dressing room at Lynah Rink would be heated up to about a hundred degrees between periods. Sand would be sprinkled on the floor around the visiting team’s bench in order to dull their skates.

For two or three years before they had to meet in those 1970 playoffs, Cornell just would not play Clarkson.  Cornell played a creampuff schedule – two games against all the Ivy League teams, which guaranteed them ten wins a year.  They played BU and BC and once each. Lenny had no use for Ned, and the feeling was mutual.  Good guys don’t always win, and the bad guy beat the good guy twice in 1970.

Since that year, I have never rooted for a Cornell team. I still don’t.  Even though “some of my best friends are Cornellians,” most of their fans in those days were arrogant, obnoxious, and entitled. You’d think they were the ones who were playing the game.  Cornell has renewed its rivalry with BU – and it is a good one, I’ll grant – and I pull for those Terriers every time. Old dislikes die hard.

In 1971, Clarkson was back in the ECAC final. Again they lost, this time to Harvard, by a score of 7-4. Harvard was playing inspired hockey, giving its coach Cooney Weiland a grand swan song.  After the ECAC championship game in Boston, the NCAA selection committee broke precedent and selected Boston University as the East’s second team for the NCAA finals.  Never before had they taken any but the playoff runner-up.

Jack Kelley’s Terriers were a great team, no doubt.  They had been upset by Harvard in the ECAC semis and had a record of 26-2-1. Clarkson, which had knocked off Cornell – who else – in the other semifinal game, had a record of 28-4-1. A strong case could be made for taking BU, but it still shouldn’t have happened.  Yes, I know BU won the national championship that year, but Len Ceglarski and Clarkson deserved to go to the finals in Syracuse.

I was at the last game Lenny coached against Snooks Kelley in 1972. It was up in Potsdam in late February. Clarkson was a solid team and was once again playoff-bound.  BC, a rag-tag bunch, was struggling desperately to get Snooks his 500th win before retirement.  That was their only objective for the season.

Miracle of miracles, the Eagles pulled it out 6-4. The score was tied late in the third period when forechecker Bobby Reardon picked the pocket of Clarkson defenseman Bobby Clarke. Reardon jammed the puck past Carl Piehl for the game winner.  Piehl was the second-string goalie. Ceglarski had chosen not to play his top guy in the net, his late nephew Kevin Woods.

A year or so later, I was reminiscing about that game with Lenny, and about how critical it was, as win number 498, for Snooks in his quest for 500. He half-smiled and said, “I did my best.”

I also was at Len’s last game as Clarkson coach. It was the 1972 ECAC quarterfinals. Clarkson played at Harvard and was the better team in a close contest. But they lost. Woods was in the goal this time. He had a bad-luck play at exactly the wrong time, when a long, fluttering shot by Bill Corkery glanced into the net off his glove hand.

In the post-game locker room, neither I nor any of the other reporters addressed the elephant that was standing there by asking, “So, is this your last game at Clarkson? Are we going to see you at BC next season?” And of course, he never said a thing either.

Lenny’s honeymoon year at BC, 1972-73, was a lot of fun. Tom Mellor came back from the Olympics. Ed Kenty, Reardon, and Harvey Bennett were still around. Freshmen played for the first time on the varsity.  Richie Smith, Mark Albrecht, and Mike Powers were the impact rookies. The Eagles beat Cornell for the first time since before World War II and defeated BU as well. They made it all the way to the NCAA’s at Boston Garden.

With Lenny in charge, there was a new spirit of optimism after years of feeling uncompetitive against the big three rivals – BU, Cornell, and Harvard. But consistent success was a few years away. The rest of the 1970s were rocky, up-and-down until the recruiting stabilized.

Two of the most fun-filled years I can recall were 1976 and 1978. In ‘76, BC returned to the ECAC playoffs after a two-year absence.  They knocked off Cornell 6-2 in Ithaca – I never tired of beating Cornell and its oleaginous coach Dick Bertrand, a worthy successor to Harkness.  Nor did Len Ceglarski.  Beating Cornell delighted him more than winning against any other team.

BC also won the Beanpot in 1976, breaking a twelve-year drought, thanks largely to freshmen Joe Mullen and Paul Skidmore. Lenny had his car stolen right before the Beanpot final, a 6-3 win over BU. I think that the BC booster club would have bought him a new car every year if he could just keep winning the Beanpot.

In the 1976 playoffs, BC was seeded eighth and lost by a goal to top-seeded BU. The game was horribly officiated. John “Monk” McCarthy gave BU a preposterous third-period power play when BC’s Paul Barrett, kneeling next to the boards after a whistle, picked up the puck with his hand and flipped it over his shoulder.  That was one of several lousy calls McCarthy made against both teams. Len was never one to blast referees, and he kept a tight lip that night. All he’d say for the record – almost in tears – was “I’m so proud of them.”

Regarding referees, there was only one time in all the years I knew him that Lenny’s mouth got him in trouble.  In a Saturday afternoon game up at Cornell in 1980, Lenny suggested to Jack McGlynn that his refereeing objectivity had been compromised by his being a drinking buddy of Bertrand.  That got him a two-minute bench minor.

I had driven up to that game, leaving at 6:00 a.m. from the BC campus with the Dailey sisters, Patty and Nancy. They worked in the athletic department and were as devoted to Lenny and his teams as any fan ever was. We saw BC dominate most of the way and prevail, 6-5, after Cornell had a late flurry to make it close.

Usually, a dangerous breakdown like that would have ticked Lenny off. But not this time. After the game he was grinning like a cat full of cream. “We looked pretty good out there today, eh?” After all, it was another win over Cornell in Ithaca.

In 1978 we had the Great Blizzard. Three of them, actually. The middle one was the worst. BC had a tough time getting its game together. They lost big to BU at the Beanpot and at Cornell. The final game of the year was a makeup against UNH on a Sunday afternoon. The winner would be fifth and the loser would be eighth.  Skidmore had a good game in goal and BC pulled it out.

Dave Pearlman and I did the radio broadcast of the quarterfinal playoff game at RPI.  BC should have been playing at home. RPI, mere percentage points ahead in the standings, was there because they had avoided playing BU. Their snowed-out game against the Terriers, an almost certain loss, just couldn’t be made up, sorry.  Too much time out of class, our trustees are concerned, was the spin from coach Jimmy Salfi. So BC bused up to Troy, New York.

Lenny was interviewed by an RPI writer before the game. The questions, about RPI getting a home seed by avoiding BU, were almost taunting and intended to provoke. Lenny wouldn’t take the bait and asked the writer, “Well, what do you think? Do you think it was fair?”

BC ended up winning that night. When Paul Hammer scored the winner in overtime, Dave and I both jumped up in our seats. We pulled the plug out of the radio board, and for several minutes the audience back home didn’t know who won.

BC went on to win the ECAC Tournament and make it to the NCAA final game against BU. Neither team played particularly well; BU won 5-3. It was another NCAA runner-up slot for Len, his fourth and final.

BC would be a frequent qualifier for the big show but they were never able to win it. One year, it was superhuman goaltending by Providence’s Chris Terreri. Another time, BC lost its best player, Tim Sweeney, to an injury during the tourney. Bad bounces and bad luck were frequent visitors.  Boston College did not win the national title until 2001, with York as coach.

Ceglarski was a player on BC’s first NCAA winner in his sophomore season of 1948-49. But that he never won a national championship as a coach is a crying shame.  A coach who has such a long and successful career should get the chance to ascend to the very top of the mountain just once. It seems like the very nice guys, the gracious gentlemen like Len Ceglarski, sometimes just can’t get there.

Others in that category were Charlie Holt of UNH and Lefty Smith of Notre Dame. Each of them, like Lenny, deserved to win a national crown at least once in his lengthy and distinguished career. Perhaps they all lacked that last measure of cutthroat ruthlessness that you could see in coaches like Harkness, Herb Brooks, Bob Johnson, and Shawn Walsh, among others.

Of one thing, though, I’m certain. I’d have wanted my son to be coached by Len Ceglarski.

Book Review and Reflection: The Book of Separation

October 25, 2017

I’m not Jewish.  I’ve never been through a divorce. And I’m not a woman.  But I can certainly relate to author Tova Mirvis and her life story, as told in her latest work, The Book of Separation.

The book, Mirvis’s fourth, tells of her journey toward ending both her first marriage and her life in Orthodox Judaism. That all-encompassing religious community both enfolded and protected her even as it constricted and repressed her throughout her youth and early adulthood.  Many of us, I’m sure, have felt and grappled with fears, misgivings, and doubts similar to those that Mirvis recounts.

As the book begins, she is standing alone, before the panel of bearded, black-garbed Orthodox rabbis who will rule upon the legitimacy of the get, the divorce document that, by Jewish law, can only be issued by the husband. It’s a dramatic scene. As one who was brought up in old-time, fire-and-brimstone Catholicism, I can only imagine how I would have felt if I’d stood before a phalanx of black cassocks and Roman collars to take my leave of my own Church.

I probably would have chickened out. She didn’t. But she must have considered it many times. As she stated in those first few pages, “If you left, you were in danger of losing everyone you had loved. If you left, you were in danger of losing yourself.”

Mirvis did leave, and she did lose a lot. But she gained and learned much too. I daresay she will bring to mind, in many readers, a raft of similar emotions and memories and should-have-dones – particularly if religion was a defining factor in their lives.

Did you ever feel, for instance, as she did one Rosh Hashanah when, as she remembers looking at the hats of the ladies in synagogue,

“I tried to pray, but my mind kept wandering. Under all these brims and bows, what were people really thinking? Did any of these women ever worry, as I did, that too much thinking might unravel their lives? You were supposed to believe that this way of life was the only true one…Yet along with the actual rules, there was another set of laws, equally stringent yet more unforgiving, enforced not by a belief in God but by communal eyes that were just as all-seeing and all knowing. Inside my head, a voice constantly whispered, What will they think?”

Well, I had learned that my religion was the one true faith as well.  My mind also used to wander as I sat through all those masses and novenas and parish missions and Stations of the Cross. And back then, I would have dreaded the mere thought of facing the opprobrium of parents, clergy, and my Catholic community if I’d voiced my own growing doubts.  I do have a few friends who did boldly voice their own doubts, early in their adult years, and in hindsight I wish I’d had their courage.

I also once lived in fear of the same God about Whom Mirvis expressed her nagging doubts: “”Did I believe in a God who cared about the smallest details of what I ate and what I wore – God the Scorekeeper, God the Punisher, God the King?”

With such passages, Tova Mirvis surely touches some raw nerves and long-buried feelings. Her readers who have ever struggled to strike a balance between God’s message and God’s earthly, self-designated messengers will probably nod in agreement and recognition.

Much of the book chronicles Mirvis’s passage through everyday life: education, marriage and family, friendships, religious practices, and eventually the harsh realities of drifting further away from spouse and community. Along the way she also explains many of the reasons behind Jewish rituals, the rich tapestry of tradition that has distinguished that remarkable people for millennia and will continue to do so.

One of the story’s turning points calls to mind another famous Jewish author – another who was divorced and remarried – Midge Decter. She once said, “Nerve is one thing all writers need.” Mirvis showed the requisite nerve when she spoke, and stood her ground, at a cultural conference run by a large group of Orthodox rabbis.

That occasion was, she noted “the last time I considered myself still inside.” She would not make her writing conform to their rules and demands.  “I didn’t believe their rules contained the ultimate truth…it wasn’t just about writing honestly and freely, it was about living honestly and freely…I was no longer willing to pretend in order to belong.”

Stepping to the outside of the Orthodox community did, as expected, sever friendships and bring rejection and avoidance. The author missed being inside that old community, especially on occasions like Shabbat. One consolation was her knowing “there are other kinds of communities that I can eventually build for myself – smaller maybe, less all encompassing, ones in which I won’t have to cede my independence in order to belong.

There is a telling observation Mirvis makes near the end of the book. Her children have come for the weekend. Her son Noam, who has remained Orthodox, asks her to unscrew the refrigerator’s light bulb so that it won’t go on – one of many Shabbat practices that Mirvis no longer follows.

She gladly agrees to honor his request, noting “I’m doing this, and other actions like it, to help Noam be part of this world that he is choosing. And doing so comes not only in the broad strokes and large proclamations about love and respect but in each of the minute actions – not just God, not just sin, lay in the details, but love lived there too.”

Yes, it is the little things. God and love both are to be found in the details of our everyday lives.

Another heartening passage comes late in the book when Mirvis returns to the scene at the beginning. She’s alone with that formidable panel of senior rabbis. They’ve examined the get, the divorce document whose official name is sefer kritut, a book of termination, of rending, of separation.

The document, written in Aramaic and dated 5772 from the creation of the world, is in order.  In keeping with ancient rite, the senior rabbi folds it up tight and drops it into her cupped hands. She must signify acceptance – clasp the get to her bosom, turn, and walk from the room. When the door closes behind her, the divorce takes effect.

They summon her back into the room, where one of the rabbis takes the document, draws an X on it, then tears it up so that no one could ever examine it and find an error. It’s over.  After the rabbis recount some of her future obligations and she’s about to leave, the head of the court looks her in the eye.

She says, at that point, that she was steeling herself for rebuke. That’s another thing I can imagine doing. In fact, I’d be expecting to hear that I’m bound for the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

No such rebuke happened. Instead, the man tells her a story. The Talmud, he explains, said that the Temple altar weeps when a man divorces his wife. There was once a rabbi who went through a divorce; his students were confused and puzzled that it could even happen.

“Better the altar should weep than should I,” came that divorced rabbi’s reply.

With that, the senior rabbi tells Mirvis, “It’s a new beginning. Go forth, become the person you need to be.”

That’s wise counsel for anyone, of any age, of any religious faith. And this is a book I’d recommend for anyone of any age, gender, or faith as well.

Eulogy for My Brother Jimmy

July 27, 2017

Youth hoop hopeful

My brother Jimmy, three years my junior, died on July 17, 2017 at the age of 65. His funeral mass was celebrated today, July 27, at St. John’s Church in Winthrop.  I delivered this eulogy at the conclusion of the mass.

Thank you all for being with us today.  I speak for Peter, Peggy, Mary, and all of the members of the extended Burke family. Your presence means a great deal to us.

Today’s reading from Ecclesiastes is especially appropriate as we bid farewell to Jimmy Burke. To everything there is a season. It is familiar to all of us in the liturgy. It is also the source of one of the great hit songs of the 1960s, “Turn Turn Turn.”

It don’t know if that song was in Jimmy’s personal repertoire, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.  It was his style. And as for the season – well, this is summertime. I’m sure than some of the happiest times of Jimmy’s life were the summers of his youth and young adulthood…sitting on the wall at the beach, surrounded by his friends, playing guitar, singing and harmonizing.  So if ever he had to leave us, perhaps it’s best that it be in summer. This is Jimmy’s time.

Jimmy was the fourth of six children in our family. He was different from all of us in so many ways. He had a real gift for music. None of his siblings had that gift. Jimmy had no formal musical training, as far as I know, anyway. But he made himself a superb guitarist. He liked folk and rhythm and blues, and I‘m told that he sounded a bit like Crosby Stills and Nash.

You can see clips of Jimmy on the internet. Five years or so ago he went to some open mic nights at the Artists’ Coffee House.  On their Facebook page, you can see him performing “Captain Jack” by Billy Joel. He’s also doing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” by Bob Dylan.

Meeting Rin Tin Tin, around 1958, at Boston Garden rodeo.

That is something else that’s especially fitting as we lay him to rest today. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Jimmy also loved to sing karaoke.  He was just a fun guy to be around.

He wasn’t just musical. Jimmy also had quite a talent for art. He could draw very realistic pictures and cartoons and caricatures. I remember one time when he took an empty Table Talk Pie box – one with the clear plastic top still intact – he reached in and drew perfect likeness of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble on the inside. It was his Flintstone Theater.

Another time he drew a picture of two steam shovels, a big one and an identical-looking smaller one. But instead of the claw scoop on the front of each one, he drew a rotary sandpaper attachment.  And he put an explanatory caption on it for us.

“It’s a combination derrick and sander. The little one is the son of the big one. It’s Derrick Sander’s Son.”

What kind of a mind would make a creative and imaginative leap like that? Certainly not one that any of his brothers or sisters possessed.  Jimmy was exceptional, all right. If he’d ever gone into advertising, he could have been a creative star.

He also had a talent for getting under everyone’s skin. Particularly with his nicknames. In one of the children’s books we had around the house, there was a story that had a cranky old billygoat. The story said, “My, but he was a crosspatch.”

Jimmy First Communion, with me (being a jerk) and our sister Mary.

That became Jimmy’s nickname for Peter: Crosspatch. Needless to say, big brother Peter didn’t like it at all. Nor did he like it when Jimmy taught the name to Jackie, who was two years old and just learning to talk. He’d say “Co-Pat! Co-Pat!” and burst into gales of laughter. And there wasn’t a blessed thing Peter could do about it.

I know also that a very proud moment of Jimmy’s young life came when he made the Little League A Division at age ten. He made the same team I had been on – the Braves. For the previous three years he had come to most of my games with our mother. My Braves teams had one great year and two terrible ones.  Jimmy’s teams were better and more consistent over his Little League career than my teams were. And he was so happy to be a Brave like me.

Jimmy graduated from Saint John’s School in 1966 and from Dominic Savio High in 1970. And that was the extent of his education. He had no desire to go further. He had a few jobs along the way but nothing you could call a career. He was a homebody. And he had his guitar. He stayed with our parents in the house on Pleasant Street all the way to the end of their lives.

Along the way he became a star of another sort. He was a fixture on radio talk shows: Jordan Rich, Steve Levellie late at night, Bob Raleigh during the day.  He was one of their regulars. It was a hard to beat Jimmy at radio trivia. Those guys came to refer to him as our good friend Jim from Winthrop.

Dad died in 1994 and Mom passed away in 1999. The house had to be sold. He was on his own, and the years since then were very difficult on him. But there were many people who knew Jimmy and did all they could to help him get by.  I want to thank Peg Lyons of the Winthrop Housing Authority, and Nancy Williams and Kathy Dixon of the Senior Center. They knew what Jimmy was all about, they cut him slack when he needed it, and he knew that they cared.

Chillin’ with our dad in the man cave.

Peter, our oldest brother, became Jimmy’s surrogate parent. He handled Jimmy’s finances and went to bat for him and advocated for him with any authorities that Jimmy encountered. What Peter — and Monica, inviting Jimmy over for countless meals — did for Jimmy over the past 15 years or so has been nothing short of heroic.  Their daughter Katie also, always had a soft spot for her uncle Jimmy, and she let him know it. That’s important.

I would like to conclude with Jimmy’s own words. These were written on papers that Peter found in his apartment.  Jimmy knew. Death did not come as a surprise to him.

Life’s Lesson Learned

To whoever finds me lifeless, remember me fondly in your hearts.

Be a giver, not a taker. To give another love and to make them smile and laugh is life’s greatest reward.

Live each day as if it were your last day, with love and kindness towards all.

Thank you for all your kindness, and to you all who made me laugh, I thank you.

And to you all who made me cry, I thank you too.

After tears, laughter feels so much better, like a sunny day after endless rain.

I ask all of you to pray for me, and God speed to all until we meet again.

JCB

Jimmy and Mom.

Back at you, Jimmy. We thank you too.

You made a few of us cry along the way. But you made many more of us smile and laugh. So thank you.

You’re now with Mom and Dad and Jackie. Half of the Burke family of Winthrop has crossed the river.

Soon and very soon the rest of us will cross that river.  And we’ll all be together again.

Until then, may God bless and keep you, little brother.

You’re free at last. Free at last.

 

 

 

 

 

Great Men and Great Guys

April 23, 2017
grinold

Jack Grinold

This week’s passing of Northeastern University’s and Boston sports’ beloved Jack Grinold, my good friend and good friend to countless others, brought back so many memories. Here’s one, a recollection of one his personal anecdotes, that’s not only a fond memory. It’s also instructive.

Jack lived in Brighton, about a block from Boston College. One of his walking routes, for those infrequent days when nothing was going on in his life, took him through the campus.

It was a mid-summer Sunday afternoon a few years ago. BC was deserted. Summer session was over, and the students had not begun to arrive for the fall semester.  Boston College’s middle campus is a landscaping gem; the trees, greenery, flower beds and walkways have been beautifully maintained for many years.

Jack was strolling through campus when he saw a man hunched over, close to the side of one of the buildings. Coming closer, he realized that the man was a gardener, digging with a hand spade and pulling up weeds that had begun to sprout through the mulch.

monan

J. Donald Monan, S.J.

Coming closer still, he recognized the lone gardener. It was J. Donald Monan, S.J., former president and then chancellor of Boston College.

“Hey, Father, what you up to?” cried Jack.  And if you knew Jack, you know exactly how that high-pitched greeting sounded.

“Hello, Jack,” came the reply. “I just saw these weeds coming up, and I figured I’d better do something about them.”

Then they had a nice little chat, just the two of them, and each proceeded along his way.

Kipling once wrote something about walking with kings but not losing the common touch.  The late J. Donald Monan’s station in life made him one who frequently walked with kings. But how many of those of his social rank would – literally – stoop to pull weeds from a garden in the realm he ruled for so many years?

More importantly, Father Monan sought out and valued the company and conversation of people of all stations in life. He also knew that he had a kindred spirit in Jack Grinold. That’s a quality that makes those who rank as “great men” truly great.

In that respect, Jack Grinold was J. Donald Monan’s peer. And both of them knew it. Jack’s place on life’s organizational chart wasn’t as lofty. He wasn’t a king. But kings sought him out and valued his advice. So did students, and athletes, and writers, and historians, and everybody else.  Jack Grinold always had a kind word and genuine, sincere interest in others, no matter what their station. So too did J. Donald Monan.

I can imagine the two of them now, meeting up in the Second Balcony and looking down on the rest of us. There will be no weeds to pull, no press releases to get out. Still, they’ve got plenty to do up there, legions of old friends and acquaintances to catch up with.

But I suspect that each February, perhaps, they’ll get together for another little chat. Fierce competitors that they are, they’ll root for their respective schools’ teams in the Beanpot. But only if it’s a BC-NU matchup. Otherwise, I bet, they’ll be pulling for each other.

After all, that’s what great guys do.

Book Review and Reflection: Hillbilly Elegy

February 17, 2017

hillbillyPerhaps the best thing that I can say about J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy is that it reminds me of Catherine Marenghi’s Glad Farm.

Both are personal memoirs of people who grew up in dire poverty and “made it” despite the odds that their respective backgrounds had stacked against them. But there are as many differences between the tales as there are similarities.

Marenghi grew up in Milford, Massachusetts, a dreary Boston exurb. Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio. But he considers Jackson, Kentucky, his native town. His great-grandparents had a place in “the holler” of Jackson, in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country. He spent most of his summers there and a lot of other time visiting Jackson, which he called “the one place that belonged to me.”

Shortly before World War II, his grandparents had traveled the “Hillbilly Highway” that brought thousands of hill people to work in the smoky factories and steel mills of Rustbelt America. But those folk brought their hillbilly values and culture out of the hills to wherever they settled.

Glad Farm, which I reviewed here, is an inspiring personal odyssey. So too is Hillbilly Elegy. But Vance frequently steps back and explains what’s going on and why. That’s good, and much needed in America – especially at this time in our history.

The plight of poor white citizens, a virtually forgotten segment of our society, hasn’t been discussed much at all.  Be warned, however. Don’t refer to it as “plight” if you’re talking to one of Vance’s kin. You’ll likely get busted upside your head. Or worse.

Jackson is in Breathitt County, Kentucky. It’s called “Bloody Breathitt” because it was the only county in America to fill its World War I draft quota entirely with volunteers.  There’s much to admire in its rough-hewn people, with their loyalty to family and country topping the list. But hill folk take those loyalties and many other things to extremes.

The stories Vance tells of his family history and his early life bring their share of chuckles. But they are rueful, dread-laced chuckles. You wouldn’t want to be there.

A distant cousin of Vance’s married into a family named Hatfield and joined a band of former Confederate soldiers. He murdered a former Union soldier named Asa McCoy, thereby launching one of the most famous and violent family feuds in American history.

An uncle, called a “son of a bitch” by a truck driver, pulled the man out of the truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Somehow, the guy survived.

Author J.D. Vance

Author J.D. Vance

Another uncle, called “Teaberry” because of his fondness for that brand of gum, once heard a young man tell a female relative that he’d like to “eat her panties.” Teaberry drove home, obtained a pair of the woman’s panties, sought out the kid, and forced him at knifepoint to consume them.

After World War II, many poor whites had a choice to make: whether to stay in the hills and work in the coal mines or take the Hillbilly Highway to find work in the industrial Midwest.

The book’s hero is Vance’s grandmother Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance. She was known as the toughest and meanest woman in Jackson, even long after she and her husband had taken the Hillbilly Highway out. She once saw a couple of guys trying to steal the family cow. She fetched her rifle and brought down one of them with a shot to the leg. Mamaw was fixin’ to put the final bullet through his skull when Papaw intervened.

Later on, when Vance was in the seventh grade and teetering close to taking up with weed-smoking peers, she told him blithely that, if she saw him with any of that crowd, she’d run them over in her car.   “No one will ever find out,” she warned.  He stayed away from them.

Still later she was paid a visit by a Marine recruiter.  Not happy with her grandson’s decision to enlist, she greeted the recruiter from her front porch and said, “Set one foot on my f—- porch, and I’ll blow it off.”

The Marine stayed down on the lawn. I could only think of a deadly serious version of Granny Clampett. Again, a chuckle, but one from a respectable distance, just as that Marine guy sensibly kept.

Vance lived most of his high school years with Mamaw. His mother, one of her three children, was one of the tragic cases who never made it out of the desperate cycles of poverty, addiction, and despair in Appalachia. She went through several husbands and common-law husbands and eventually succumbed to heroin.

In his book, Vance frequently critiques and analyzes what’s going on.  In a cri de coeur about the hillbilly mindset and pathology, he writes,

 

“This was my world; a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way to the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans…We spend to pretend we’re upper class. And when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity, there’s nothing left over….Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. ..We don’t study as children and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. We choose not to work when we should be looking for a job. Sometimes we get a job but it won’t last…We talk about the value of hard work  but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

 

But Vance was one of the rare hillbillies who took advantage of the few good cards in the hand he was dealt. Of his grandmother, he states, “Thanks to Mamaw, I never saw only the worst of what our community offered, and I believe that saved me. There was always a safe place and a loving embrace if I ever needed it. Our neighbors’ kids couldn’t say the same.”

Mamaw died at age 72 when Vance was in the Marine Corps.  The Marines were a positive and transforming experience for Vance. After military service he went to Ohio State and Yale Law School. Generous scholarship help as well as the GI Bill enabled Vance to finance his education.  He did well in both schools. But even then, as he was discovering the richer and more prosperous side of America, he was torn between his new life and his hillbilly roots.

One time, on a visit to the old home country, he was wearing a Yale t-shirt while filling up at a gas station. When the attendant asked if he went to Yale, he denied it and said that his girlfriend went there. “I lied to a stranger to avoid feeling like a traitor,” he writes.

So J.D. Vance escaped his past. Or did he? You can decide that, after reading his book.

I can envision a college course built around Hillbilly Elegy and Glad Farm.  Book clubs and discussion groups might also consider taking up the two of them together. These two fine authors, both penning their first book, have much to teach us.

Catherine Marenghi’s writing style is more lyrical and picturesque than Vance’s meat-and-potatoes prose. Glad Farm has a Hallmark ending; it would make a better movie or miniseries than would Hillbilly Elegy.  You feel a nice, admiring glow for its author when you put it down.

You also admire the dickens out of J.D. Vance. But you can’t help but feel a bit depressed when you close his book. At least that’s how I felt.  The intractable problems that he lived through can be overcome, as his story shows. But those problems will always be with us.

What Two Soldiers Can Teach Both Our Political Leaders and All of Us

January 22, 2017

Today I would like to reflect on long-ago wartime deeds of a couple of soldiers. One of them wore the uniform of the United States of America; the other, the uniform of Nazi Germany.

May the actions of both men serve as moral and ethical guideposts for everyone: for those who hold positions of political and personal power and make decisions affecting the lives and fortunes of millions, and for those of us who make our own, seemingly less consequential decisions that affect our fellow human beings as we go about our daily lives.

Lawrence Colburn

Lawrence Colburn

The first of these soldiers is Army Specialist Lawrence Colburn.  I recently read of his passing, which took place on December 13, 2016. Colburn was the gunner in the three-man helicopter crew that passed over the Vietnam hamlet of My Lai in March 1968 and saw a horrific scene of mass slaughter taking place. The chopper landed between the villagers who were being gunned down and the U.S. solders, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley.

Colburn remained in the helicopter along with specialist Glenn Andreotta.  They trained their guns on the clearing, covering their pilot, Hugh Thompson, as he angrily confronted Calley. Thompson ordered Calley and his troops to stop the carnage, and threatened to fire on them if they did not. The killing stopped, but not soon enough to spare the lives of the 500 or more villagers that Calley’s men had murdered.

My Lai is perhaps the darkest chapter in American military history. As the magazine that mentioned the news of Colburn’s death pointed out, the mass killing took more lives than the Nazis’ slaughter of 340 people of the town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia. That mass murder was a reprisal for the assassination of the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler’s man in charge of that region.

We all know of the policies and practices that drove Nazi Germany to the mass murder of some six million Jewish people. But the Holocaust, or Shoah, also brought forth here and there some tiny glimmers of heroic charity of the kind shown at My Lai.

One Holocaust survivor, my dear and admired friend Mary Wygodski, tells of a German soldier that a friend of hers encountered in a concentration camp. Mary never saw him herself, but she heard of him. He was a young man of short stature, working as a guard and wearing the uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German regular army. He was not a member of the SS, that diabolical rabble that were charged with little more than killing Jews.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

Somewhere along the way, that guard encountered a young woman known to Mary. He offered to leave his lunch for her every day, stashing it in a place that would be known to just the two of them.  How and why he came to that decision, what motivated him to risk severe punishment if not his very life, we’ll never know. He also admonished her, “You don’t know me. You never saw me. We never spoke.”

So it was, until they had to move on. Mary’s friend shared the lunches – real food like wurst, bread, cheese – with a few others who were being fed starvation diets as they were worked to death. We don’t know if that shared food saved their lives, but it doubtlessly gave them hope and strength to carry on.

I singled our Lawrence Colburn here only because his death was the most recent.  Andreotta died in combat in Vietnam, and Thompson died in 2006. Thompson was probably the one who determined what they did on that awful day, but all three were heroes.

They were initially regarded as traitors for reporting the massacre and testifying against Calley. They all received, belatedly in 1998, the Soldier’s Medal.  Thompson and Colburn were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, but they were passed over.  No surprise there.

That nameless German lad undoubtedly did not receive a medal for his quiet and unsanctioned heroism from his government.  I only hope that he survived the war and lived a good life. Perhaps, either now or in the hereafter, he can take comfort in knowing that he may have saved the lives of several Jewish girls. Their lives and those of their children and descendants are his gift to all of us.

Finally, as the writer of the story on Colburn noted, he and his crewmates never forgot that their highest duty was to humanity and to the law.  Nor did the kid from the German army.

There is a new group of people assuming the mantle of power in Washington D.C.  I hope that they too remember that their highest duty is to humanity and to the law. That goes for them and for those who opposed them at every turn, and still do.

It is also a good thing for us all to remember. Our decisions and deeds may not have the grand, widespread impact of those of our leaders.  But they are no less important to those whose lives touch our own.

Book Review: Glad Farm, by Catherine Marenghi

August 12, 2016
51rtPP7-DvL

Glad Farm Second Edition Front Cover

(Note: Glad Farm’s second edition is now available. The review that follows was done upon the first edition’s release in the summer of 2016.)

It’s tempting, and too easy, to describe Catherine Marenghi’s memoir, Glad Farm, as a great American success story.  It is that, to be sure. She lived her first 17 years with her parents and four siblings in a ramshackle home in Milford, Massachusetts.  The grinding poverty of her childhood reminds one of Jeannette Walls’s early years in her 2005 memoir Glass Castle.

Like Ms Walls, Ms Marenghi set herself free through her education.  She earned a full scholarship to Tufts and went on to a prosperous career in writing and public relations.  That’s the bare outline; that’s the American success story.  That’s not enough, however. It doesn’t do justice to this elegantly written but searingly honest tale.

The Glad Farm that gave the book its title was the plot of land where she was raised. Her parents had grown and sold gladiolus flowers. The business did well for a time but failed before Catherine, the fourth of their five children, was born.

The family remained on the land and barely eked out an existence.  The author is unsparingly frank in describing it all, including her inability to have school friends come to visit, her dealings with thoughtless peers and adults, and her often-contentious relations with mother and sisters.  We also read of her coming of age on the outskirts of hippiedom in college, of her happy junior year abroad in Italy, and of a unique job as one of America’s first telecommuters.

Biography and memoir are best writ small. How well we experience the fine details – the colors, the smells, the images – are usually the difference between an average read and a superior one. Glad Farm is the latter.

Catherine Marenghi has a delightful knack of painting pictures with her words, of crafting similes and metaphors and of employing all those rhetorical devices that we’ve heard about but never could do ourselves.

It’s impossible not to feel the chill in that unheated home in the woods of Milford, or the cold wind on the slushy, ash-strewn pathway to the outhouse.   We can see the streets, the artworks, and the people of Florence and Perugia, Italy. We can also feel her joy in motherhood and the swirling emotions that accompanied her divorce proceedings.

Author Catherine Marenghi

Author Catherine Marenghi

It takes the author almost a full lifetime to discover all that she, and we readers, need to know about her parents and about her extended family’s past.  Her discovery of family correspondence and clippings in an old cedar chest reveal the details of her parents’ dreams and ambitions.  She also learns of a betrayal, by relatives, that kept her family out of a much better house that was rightfully theirs.

Finally, she and we learn of another family tragedy that had proved too much for her father to overcome. It wasn’t just the failure of the gladiolus farm that crushed his spirit.

As she puts it, after first seeing a picture of her father in his younger days, “He was a good-looking man – not at all like the world-weary, gray haired father I remembered. I could see what my mother saw in him.”

To endure and prevail through the hardships and injustice that Catherine Marenghi experienced is remarkable enough.  To endure and prevail without allowing bitterness to take hold would be much, much harder for most human beings.

I don’t think I’m revealing too much to report that that’s not what happens here.  Catherine’s final words are a precise and eloquent summation, the essential message that readers should remember.

“Life, precious life, always wins over death. Life gets the last word.”

Yes, it does. And this wonderful book shows why.

 

Sporting Reflections – Farewell to Bud Collins

March 5, 2016
Bud Collins

Bud Collins

I once met the pope. Got his autograph. And he signed his name, not his official title.

 

The name he signed wasn’t his real name. And I didn’t meet him in the Vatican, but in the press box at Foxboro Stadium, where I worked for many years as a statistician.

 

Pope Alvin was Pete Rozelle, the infallible autocrat who ran the National Football League for almost 30 years. He was born Alvin Ray Rozelle, and he’d been dubbed Pope Alvin by Bud Collins.

I was tempted to ask Mr. Rozelle to sign my game program “Pope Alvin,” but I chickened out. Probably a good decision. He did sign the book, but he seemed just a little affronted at the request. I rather doubt he liked the moniker from Collins, the fun-loving, nonpareil sportswriter-turned-broadcaster, who died earlier this week at age 86.

I met Bud several times over the years and had brief conversations with him, but I can’t say that I knew him. That’s my loss. What a great mentor he would have been for me, as he was with many other writers too numerous to mention here.

For Bud Collins, it seemed, writing wasn’t work at all. I was play. It was joy. He had a joie de vivre that came through on the printed page. Even if he was needling or obliquely criticizing, as was probably the case with “Pope Alvin,” I can’t imagine people staying angry with him.

A major portion of Bud Collins’ professional career was taken up with tennis, first as a writer and then as a broadcaster. He knew everyone and was revered by everyone. I’m a little sorry that his sport happened to be tennis, because tennis and its people never caught my fancy. So I didn’t seek out Bud’s stories and deprived myself of regular reading of a truly superb craftsman.

He was a master at the quick quip-in-print, the off-the-wall simile or metaphor that was just too clever for anyone else to dream up under pressure of a deadline. He was a master, and not just with his nicknames like “Bucharest Buffoon” for Ilie Nastase, and “Sisters Sledgehammer” for Venus and Serena Williams.
Once, when covering the handsome and rising tennis star Bjorn Borg, he described the Swede’s adoring female fans as experiencing “Borgasms.” If memory serves, that one got edited out before the Globe hit the streets. Of course, it would remain in the story today. Probably in the headline.

Bud loved what he did, and he loved the people he covered in their victories and their defeats. He knew that sports was the toy department of society. He enjoyed that department to the full, traveling around the world to cover it. One regular feature in the Globe was “Bud Collins: Anywhere.” And he could be reporting from just about anywhere, dressed in his trademark outlandishly patterned colored pants.

The first I met Bud Collins was back in the late 50’s or early 60’s. It was at the Corinthian Yacht Club during Marblehead Race Week. Bud was still working for the Boston Herald at the time. He came to Marblehead to find an intriguing subject for “The Collins View.” He got to talking with a bunch of us from Winthrop and told us he was a Herald sportswriter. I asked him if he was Tim Horgan. Nice try, but in any case he seemed favorably impressed that I knew somebody with a byline.

He decided to do his column on Winthrop’s own John “Mac” McDonald and his red-haired, freckle-faced Turnabout crewman, Peter “Red” Fenlon. He wrote of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as I recall, and of girls wanting to go out in Mac’s boat, “Sea Note.” Mac and Red had their picture taken, shaking hands, to accompany the article. They had to go in to the Herald building in Boston for that, if memory serves.

The encomia for Bud Collins keep coming, as well they should. He was one of a kind. Rest in peace, Bud!

What Writers Live For

February 24, 2016

Cover front2Our book was published a little over a year ago. I just have to share the email (below) that I received from Shauna Sullivan McDonald. She is the daughter of Charlie Sullivan, Boston College Class of 1942.

This is why I love writing stories about people – whether they are athletes or not.

Charlie was the oldest former player whom I interviewed during the course of my research. He is, I am quite sure, the oldest living BC hockey alumnus. My co-author Reid Oslin interviewed Bill Hogan, Class of 1933, who lived to the age of 100 and who, unfortunately, did not live to see the book published.

Bill Hogan was the true founding father of Boston College hockey. He was class president in 1932-33. Hockey had been curtailed at the school due to the Great Depression. He persuaded the administration to revive the sport, and he recruited John “Snooks” Kelley to be the coach.

Charlie Sullivan came along a few years later. He was on a team that had three great players — Ray Chaisson, Fishy Dumond, and Johnny Pryor — and a bunch of scrubs including Charlie. In 1941, with World War II looming and knowing that he’d be called to service, Charlie didn’t come back to school in the fall. He waited around, but wasn’t drafted right away.

He happened to be on the campus one day when one of the priests saw him and asked why he was not in school. Charlie told him, and the good father promptly ordered him to report to the dean and to the athletic department.

Charlie played most of that 1941-42 season before the army came calling. His last game was on February 7 when the Eagles lost 7-2 to Dartmouth. Charlie wasn’t around at season’s end for BC’s first national championship. They won the George V. Brown Memorial Trophy as the top amateur hockey team in the country, besting the High Standard, Massena, and Saint Nick’s Hockey Clubs in the National AAU Tournament.

Charlie was just full of stories about his BC days. The team practiced only a few times a week, very early in the mornings at Boston Arena. Frequently, the practices were scrimmages against BU or Northeastern. The players would pitch a quarter each into a pot. The winners would use their money to buy breakfast at the White Tower restaurant on the way back to class.

The all had jobs on the side — usually at the Post Office or in supermarkets — while playing hockey and studying full time. For extra money, they’d sell pints of blood to the Red Cross.

Yes, times were different then. It was a privilege to be able to tell the stories after speaking with someone who lived through them.

Shauna Sullivan email