Modest Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain

We get our values from many sources–friends, family, religion, culture, and lessons learned. Today’s piece relates to a lesson learned in my college year. (See the story below today’s piece.)

When I was a child, one of the network television stations would broadcast The Wizard of Oz once a year. This was before VCRs, DVD, Youtube and Tivo. My whole family would always watch it together, almost like a religious event, and it always had the same effect on me. The Munchkins delighted me. The witch always scared me to death. The scarecrow was my best friend. All the scenes in the Emerald City filled me with awe—especially the horse of a different color. And when the witch’s henchmen were chasing Dorothy and her friends along the parapets of the evil castle, the music contributed to the impending doom and heightened my fear.

The music played during that final chase scene, I later found out, was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Mussorgsky was one of a group of five Russian composers who flourished at the end of the 19th century. This group included Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Mussorgsky was considered to be the most gifted of the five, but unfortunately he drank himself to death, and he shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 42. He left a number of works, which his friends and later composers finished for him. Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, orchestrated Night on Bald Mountain producing the version that was used in Fantasia and The Wizard of Oz.

Mussorgsky wrote the piece for St. John’s Eve, which falls near the summer solstice and is celebrated in Russia as the time when witches and other evil spirits gather on a local mountain to celebrate. I wonder if this is where our Halloween comes from.

Mussorgsky’s piece depicts the frenetic dancing of witches, the shrieks and howls of animals, spirits and the wind, and the light of dawn, which scatters the spirits. He uses bombastic brass, rapid decrescendos played on violins, and high pitched blasts of woodwinds to capture the mood of this pagan ritual perfectly. It’s not the kind of music you would put on at a dinner party, of course, but it is perfect when you want to just sit back and be awed by the power of an orchestra to evoke vivid visual scenes. And it worked perfectly in The Wizard of Oz.

Mussorgsky Biography

Purchase Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain

The Wizard of Faux Pas

Robert Fulghum wrote a best-seller entitled All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. That book touched a nerve in me. You see, my rural school system didn’t offer kindergarten. Consequently I have spent a good deal of my energy during my adult life trying to unlearn the darker lessons of my childhood and develop a more humane, tolerant and compassionate set of ethics.

It would be too easy to point the finger of blame at certain individuals, my parents, or the overwhelmingly white, conservative and working-class population of my native northern Indiana. Of course, you couldn’t really call it a hotbed of liberal tolerance, either. I grew up hearing and assimilating the prejudices and biases behind the jokes told about Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and people with disabilities.

It would be nice to say that once the civil rights movement took hold and I reached a cognizant age, I quickly shed all of my prejudices, biases and stereotypical beliefs. Unfortunately, their roots ran deep into thoughts and ideas which sometimes only surfaced in the most inappropriate times. Thus, I have had to lose each flawed and dangerous belief by the same painful process—one at a time and by making a horrible gaffe. Then some member of the offended group would then give me a lecture. If I was lucky, they would remain my friend. If not, they would disappear for ever.

The Fall of 1976 offered another one of what my late friend David Hendrickson used to call “A f****** growth opportunity.” During that, the first semester of my senior year of college, my girlfriend Lacy was in England. Now, my Myers-Briggs rating pegs me fairly solidly as an extravert, and I was spending a fair amount of time with the old artsy-campy crowd who had moved out of the French House where I’d previously lived before moving into an apartment. But I still longed for some female companionship. I wasn’t unfaithful to my girlfriend, but I did start hanging out a bit with a girl named Beth, who was in one of my French classes and who worked at the library where my friend Thom worked.

Beth had a fairly small stature, and being just five foot six inches tall myself I felt kind of tall around her. I believe she studied something like comparative literature or English, and she had a very precise, almost British, way of talking. Beth also had a wry, sometimes even wicked, sense of humor, and I often found myself frequently chatting with her on my visits to see Thom at the library.

One day, Thom suggested we cook dinner at his house and we invited Beth along. On the way there that evening, I stopped off to buy a big jug of cheap wine. The three of us had a nice, civilized meal and then we retired to Thom’s room where we sat around drinking and talking. One of the lessons I learned growing up was that the goal of drinking was to get drunk, and so I knocked back a good number of glasses of the rot gut.

The drunker I got, the more my tongue loosened and I started telling funny stories. I related a news item I had read in the newspaper that day. Someone had just written a book about the making of the movie,The Wizard of Oz. The article detailed some of the problems the filmmakers had with the Munchkins. They had put out a casting call for “midgets” and “dwarves” to play the part of the Munchkins. They recruited heavily in circuses, for sadly, that’s the milieu where most people with that disability ended up—in carnival and circus freak shows.

In the movie, the Munchkins are portrayed as sweet and innocent and child like. In reality some of the actors that played them were criminals, alcoholics, and even prostitutes. The article had a tongue in cheek tone to it and related how some of the male actors tried to come on to Judy Garland, pinch her behind, or grope her.

I summarized the story with great glee. When I finished, there was dead silence. Then Beth proceeded to give me a lesson on tolerance. Dwarves and midgets aren’t freaks, she told me. They have feelings and the right to be treated like human beings. The actors who played the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz should have my sympathy, not my derision.

I felt like such a cad. I’d grown up thinking it was OK to make jokes about people with disabilities. Perhaps Beth”s small stature indicated dwarfism in her family. Or perhaps she had been ridiculed for her small size all her life. The amazing thing was that as a child and adolescent, I had been made fun of for being small as well. Does all discrimination and prejudice start out that way–as a reaction to some earlier slight?

By the end of the night at Thom’s, I had drunk myself into near oblivion. When I was helping Thom escort Beth to the street, I fell off the steps leading up to his porch and into the bushes that enclosed his small front yard. Thom and Beth rescued me, put me to bed, and I awoke the next morning with the worst hangover of my life. After that, Beth treated me perfunctorily and coolly when I met her at the library. She had obviously written me off as a dolt, but she taught me a valuable lesson about tolerance and prejudice that day. I only wish someone had given me a similar lesson about alcohol consumption.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto Number 6 in B-flat major

I have written before I think of the wonderful people who have appeared at certain times in my life to show me little wondrous corners of life and point me in the right direction. Today, I write about two more, college professors, as it turns out, one of whom helped me hear a familiar piece of music as if for the first time.

Back in high school, I had bought a collection of all six Brandenburg concerti conducted by Pablo Casals, but I had not paid that much attention to the 6th until a professor of genetics used it to illustrate a point for us. (Please see my article after the description of the 6th below.)

One of the remarkable things about this concerto is that Bach omitted the violins entirely. Instead Bach gives melody to the violas and cellos, which creates a rich, mature and stately feeling. To me it brings to mind a carriage trundling along the English country side in the lengthening shadows of a long summer sunset. For the second movement, Bach removes all accompanying instruments and the cellos and violas play a moving, poignant duet that climbs and climbs before resolving and then lovingly recedes leaving an afterglow of tenderness. The final movement is the a syncopated gigue which trips along, and gives me the happy feeling of a peal of joyous church bells at Christmas.

Bach Biography

Purchase Bach – Brandenburg Concertos / Britten, ECO


1976: A Time of Seeing Things Anew

In November of 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president. Not only had I voted in my first presidential election, but my candidate had one. That creep Nixon and his dolt of a vice president were gone. What more could I want?

I would like to say that the experience turned me into a political activist. That I envisioned myself one day becoming president. After all, if a peanut farmer from Georgia with a populist message could get elected, then I could, too. He started out on the school board, for God’s sake. This could have been a defining moment for me-a turning point in my career. I could have set my course for the White House. But as was the case at many pivotal points in my life, when I stepped up to the plate, I could not see beyond the end of my bat. In fact, most of the time, I didn’t even see myself as a player in the game.

Like many people who grew up at the tail end of the 1960s, I really had no clue of what I wanted to do with my life except to avoid selling out. At the same time I was a kind of dilettante and loved studying new things. Every semester I seemed to take a new language–Latin, Spanish, German and Italian. For me studying a language was kind of like doing a crossword puzzle, working out how the pieces fit together and what the message was. I could sit and translate for hours, but I was too timid to speak.

This brings me to an odd contradiction in my life–I have always done and studied just about anything I wanted, but I never felt completely in control of my destiny. How does a person get that way? Over the years I have met scores of goal-directed people who became lawyers, doctors, artists, and professors. I just couldn’t find my niche and got bored once I hit a certain level of understanding.

Yet I had dreams. I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t think I could get accepted to medical school so I didn’t even try. I wanted to be an artist, but would not take art classes, thinking that I had to have a natural talent for it like my high school friends Kerry and Jayne. I wanted to be a musician, but knew that I was too old to become famous at it and so abandoned it after taking one semester of piano. I wanted to be a writer, and chose as my model James Joyce, whom I knew I could never imitate–I never studied Greek!

This brings me to the other paradox of my life. I wanted instant success in the things that I wanted to do, but I ignored and failed to build on the natural abilities I had. How did I manage never to get good career advice? I’ve since come to learn that anything you want to do well takes time and over the years I have been working on writing and have been satisfied with the little successes I have had with it. My greatest challenge is to keep myself from thinking I’m too old and have missed the boat.

But way back in college, I usually only set short term goals for myself. In the fall of 1976, pretty much all I wanted to do was get through the semester and leave for Paris in January. My goal was to study at the Sorbonne or the Alliance Francaise and get my spoken French up to speed. I thought I should be able to transfer my experience into enough college credits to graduate in the summer.

Though a French major, that fall I only took two language classes. The first was a contemporary literature class in which we had to read the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdus, Andre Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican and Jean Paul Sartre’s La Nausee. The class was taught by an stout middle-aged French woman who dyed her hair and wore thick mascara and bright red lipstick. Her enthusiasm for the works knew no bounds.

The second French class was one of the most wonderful classes I have ever taken. It was an honors colloquium devoted to 18th century France, known as the Age of Enlightenment. What made this course so wonderful was that we met in the Lily rare book library on campus. The Lily foundations, founded by the pharmaceutical family, had built this wonderful, Art Deco mausoleum and filled it with rare books that the family had collected. They had a Gutenberg Bible, of course, Diderot’s Encyclopedie, and countless other books. We studied the social, political, artistic and philosophical movements of the time period leading up to the revolution and then read original authors works from the first edition books published during their life time. I loved picking up the old, leather tomes and running my hand over the vellum. We had to write a term paper for the class and I chose to write about a 35-volume collection of fairy tales that spanned that century called Le Cabinet des Fees. It contained the original versions of “Bluebeard,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” I discussed how the genre evolved over the century and reflected the growing anti-royalist sentiment of the day. Our professor was an inspired guy named Michael Berkvam who lectured passionately about the works and inspired us with the love that he had for the writers and that time period. He never talked down to us and treated us like equals. He once invited the class to his house for a party where we stayed late discussing philosophy and getting drunk. I was amused to find a small bookshelf in his bathroom on which he kept a copy of the Bible. When I remarked on it, he said “What better place?” He always got the highest student evaluations and the French and Italian department rewarded him the next year by denying him tenure.

That fall I also took a wonderful genetics class geared for the humanity students. The professor was a genial man with horrible allergies whose desire was to convince us liberal arts majors that we weren’t scientific dolts. He tried to make the study of genetics fun, and he did a great job. One day, he showed a film about the replication of DNA, which he said occurs with a mathematical precision and at a rhythm that he realized was mirrored by the tempo of the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 6.

Now this wasn’t the first time I had heard the work. I had bought a collection of all six concerti conducted by Pablo Casals, but it was the first time that I really paid attention to the 6th.

I have written before I think of the wonderful people who have appeared at certain times in my life to show me little wondrous corners of life and point me in the right direction. These two college professors from such seemingly different backgrounds as science and French literature influenced me greatly and I only hope that we adults today remember the important role we can play in modeling behavior for youth that focuses on ennobling rather than preaching

Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz 106

Over the years, several pieces of music have caught my attention on first hearing. It’s almost as if they resonate with some pre-wired part of my being. Sarasate’s Zigeunerwisen, for example, makes me go all weak-kneed and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodie Number 14, always seem to make my Hungarian blood boil.

Bartok has that effect on me. Today’s piece, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta used to get a lot of air play on the phone-in request shows. It is considered by musicologists almost more important a work than his Concerto for Orchestra, which is his most popular piece.

The part that always sent chills down my spine, was the one in which Bartok tried to capture the feeling of night. He was fascinated by trying to capture the restless quiet of that time of day and in this piece he has the violinists slide their fingers up and down the string to give an eerie tone and which is imitated all the time in horror movies. Another movement is a musical palindrome: at midpoint, Bartok reversed the notes and it this device gives the amazing sense of time going backwards or water receding. I can’t think of a more atmospheric piece of music or a more fun one, to boot.



Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky

The fall of 1976 was a heady time for me as I started hanging around two geniuses in my college town. (See story below today’s piece.) One of them introduced me to today’s piece by Prokofiev.

The early days of Soviet Russia before World War Two, must have been a heady time for the arts. Artists like Kandinsky, Archipenko, Eisenstein, Gorky, and Prokofiev were trying to reinvent their art forms according to the liberation of humankind from the shackles of the bourgeois mentality. The new medium of moving pictures revolutionized story telling and allowed artists (and propagandist, of course) to telegraph emotions and ideas in a more visceral and emotional way, especially to the “uneducated” masses. Eisenstein invented a technique that the French called montage which involved creative editing to juxtapose strong visual images with emotional ones to deliver a greater psychological impact.

An example of the blending of the arts can be seen in Eisenstein’s film, Alexander Nevsky. Eisenstein asked Prokofiev to compose the music for the film of a Russian hero, who had routed a Swedish invasion in 1240 and two years later defeated Teutonic Knights in a famous battle on a frozen lake. Prokofiev and Eisenstein worked closely together throughout the shooting of the film. Sometimes Eisenstein would do a short episode and give it to Prokofiev to set to music and other times the composer would write a piece and Eisenstein would change the rhythm of the film’s action to suit the music.

From the music he composed for the soundtrack, Prokofiev created a cantata in seven movement, one for each major section of the film. The choral parts have strong Russian melodies sung by those deep Russian basses and contralto. They depict Russia under the yoke of the Mongols, the hypocritical Teutonic Crusaders, a call to arms designed to rouse the ethnic pride of the people, the battle on the ice, the ravages of war, and Nevsky’s triumphs. Considering that it was written on the verge of World War Two, the movie and music was obviously meant to rally the Russians once again to fight the Germans.

I especially like the battle on the ice. It starts with a low rumbling of the chorus that depicts the troops riding toward each other. The Russian and Teutonic hymns are played again to represent the opposing forces. The pace quickens to a gallop and then to a cacophonous clash of cymbals, horns, and drums that conjure up the chaos of a medieval battle. This matching of sound to action has made “art music” accessible to the masses and it also establish the use of music as an important part of creating a blockbuster hit. Imagine a Star Wars movie with someone playing a tinny piano or wheezing organ at the edge of the stage!


Kurt Gets Cooking

During the fall of 1976, my girlfriend, Lacy, traveled to England, leaving to me a hovel that she had occupied the summer before. In turn for free rent, I had to serve as janitor, living in the bowels of a sprawling apartment building, sandwiched between the laundry and the boiler room. I escaped as much as possible-to bars, coffee shops, the local vegetarian restaurant, and the houses of friends.

Coincidentally, a number of people who had orbited around the French house had moved, as I had done to the West side of campus to a nice neighborhood of small bungalows just which bordered old town Bloomington. The other day I wrote about how the house of Thom Klem became a kind of refuge where I started to seriously study cooking and expanded my interest of music into international folk and classical music.

Nearby lived David T*, another interesting character whom I have already described. He had moved in with an eccentric genius inventor named Peter. Peter had studied bassoon and one day while playing in a symphony orchestra, he conceived of the idea for four channel, or quadraphonic, sound. Not knowing anything about electronics, he gave up playing to devote all his time studying electrical engineering. He came up with a prototype which he then took to a large stereo company. They could not decide whether the time was right for this product. It would have entailed abandoning the current two-channel LPs and there was another system that a rival company had developed which they were evaluating. To keep Peter happy while they evaluated his idea and conducted test marketing, they would send him a check for $75,000 every so often.

Peter had expensive tastes and had used some of the money to go to a French cooking school. To keep his hand in electronics, he also repaired stereos at the local audiophile store. Visiting Dave and Peter’s was always an interesting adventure for me, who also was a bit of a tinkerer and loved to cook. The living room had a huge Sony Triniton television and on a table in the middle of the room was what looked like a disassembled stereo receiver. I soon learned that this was Peter’s research unit and from time to time he would go over, switch it on, switch a few wires around and ask “How does it sound now?”

The kitchen had every gadget a professional chef would need. On a wall hung valuable thick French copper sauce pans. A magnetic bar behind the stove held a dizzying array of cleavers, skewers, ladles, spatulas, tenderizers, saws and Sabatier knives. Atop a table sat a coffee grinder and a range of coffee makers–Melita drip funnels, espresso machines, French presses, and Turkish coffee boilers. Suspended from the ceiling hung a set of black anodized cook ware.

Once when I visited, Peter was busy making a pate. He lined a pate pan with bacon and filled it with ground veal, mixed with Cognac. This he covered and put in a bain marie in the oven to cook slowly for about 6 hours.

Peter liked living on the edge of strong tastes. At the local coffee house, “Two Bit Rush” they used to have an espresso happy hour where you could get a demitasse for 25 cents from four to six. Peter used to buy the dark Italian espresso bean, grind them, and then make himself huge cups of drip coffee out of it. This would keep him awake so he could work into the wee hours. Another time I visited, they offered me a Martini. They kept their Beefeater’s Gin in the freezer, and when they poured it, it was viscous and caused the glass to instantly frost. And it was there that I learned that you create an infinite variety of dishes with the myriad types of pasta.

One of their favorite dishes was made with orichietti. These are small dimpled disks of pasta that the Italians have named because they resemble little ears. While these boiled away on the stove, Peter would squeeze several cloves of garlic through a little piston press into a bowl. Next he added about a quarter of a cup of olive oil and about a cup of parmesan, which of course he had just freshly grated. For seasoning, he would add freshly ground pepper and nutmeg. For a variation he might add sliced black olives. When the orichietti were al dente he would quickly strain them and dump them piping hot on top of the cheese and garlic mixture and toss vigorously. The heady aroma of this dish was staggering.

David seemed to fit in well with the odd hours and intellectual stimulation at Peter’s. His own father had taught him the rudiments of electronics and he had all kinds of phones, short wave radios and electronic equipment. He had started out studying German and Comparative literature, but over the previous two years taught himself Russian. Peter had a top of the line IBM Selectric typewriter with interchangeable font balls. David had bought a Russian font set and had hit upon the scheme of typing term papers for Russian graduate students. He proudly showed me how he had mastered the remapped keyboard.

As I have mentioned before, David was an avid fan of 20th century music. Loving all things Russian as well, it was quite common to visit his house and find him reading Dostoyevsky in the original or listening to something by Prokofiev or Shostakovich. I believe one time they had a Sergei Eisenstein film festival on campus, and a number of us went along to see The Battleship Potemkin, Ivan the Terrible, and Alexander Nevsky.


Anonymous: Edo Lullaby

In 1976, my friend, Thom Klem, turned me onto the Nonesuch record label Explorer series (read how this happened in the story below the video).  Nonesuch specialized in gathering music from all over the globe. They basically invented the World Music genre.  One Nonesuch albums that I almost wore out was “Japan: Traditional vocal and Instrumental Music.” The songs on this album all reminded me of the Japanese samurai films I had watched a couple of years before, when PBS ran about 12 of the classic ones. Scored for five instruments-koto, biwa (a kind of upright guitar), shakuhachi, shamisen (a three string banjo-like instrument) and bells-and voice, these pieces were austere, but hauntingly beautiful and full of passion.

My favorite piece from this album is called, Edo Lullaby. It dates from the time when Tokyo was called Edo (before the 1800s). The piece starts with a mournful flute which instantly evokes for me a scene of a little bamboo pavilion by a lake at sunset. A crane walks at the water’s edge spearing fish in the reddening light. A gust of wind rustles the grove of live bamboo nearby and causes the wind chimes to tinkle. This piece captures so perfectly the quiet and contemplative feeling that nature has always evoked in me.

Download the track from Amazon: Edo Lullaby (shakuhachi, shamisen, biwa, 2 kotos, bells)

Here’s the link to the Nonesuch Reissue

Discovering the World through Food and Music

The Fall of 1976 marked my effort to live out my fantasy big time of the tortured intellectual. I had moved into a broom closet in the basement of a large apartment complex where in exchange for getting the room for free my job was to act as janitor. The superintendent of the place was a middle-aged divorce, who would shuffle out of her apartment after a hard day of drinking herself to death on the sofa watching daytime TV and yell at me for stopping the clothes dryers at night. The dryers sat right next to my sliver of a room, and paying residents would put their gym shoes in at night to dry. I often woke, heart pounding at 2:00 a.m. with the thought that the Seventh Cavalry was bearing down on me. On these little cordial visits, the super would gussy herself up by donning in a threadbare old dressing gown and furry slippers and sexily inserting a half-burned cigarette between her cracked lips. Ah, that was the life. How I kept from turning into a 20th century Raskolnikov, beats me.

Fortunately, I had lots of friends from the French House, and being recently turned 21, I would escape with them to the nearest bar or invite myself over for food and conversation. Not that I was a sponge! My friend Thom Klem lived a few blocks down the street in a quaint little bungalow that had passed from one former French House tenant to another. He shared the house with John McC*, recently returned from France and who had a passion for cooking. I would visit on Saturdays with a bottle of wine and we would sit around reading cookbooks, and they would try to recreate dishes they had eaten while living in France.

As with most crafts, in order to do a really good job you need the right tools. And Thom and John coming from fairly well off families spared little expense in acquiring whatever culinary implement a particular dish required. Luckily for them, a “fancy-assed” gourmet store had opened up in downtown Bloomington, and it was fun to be there whenever one of them brought back some new gadget. They were quite scientific about testing out and verifying which was the best garlic press, say, buying a number and comparing which one applied the most pressure, minced the cloves most thoroughly, and was the easiest to clean. Another time, John came running back with a bag of little pastry utensils-moulds, icing bags, rolling pins, parchment–which he would pull out one at a time, announce its name, and describe its proper usage. At the end he reached in and said: “And I couldn’t resist this! A butter curler!” Used, of course, for peeling off and curling thin slices of butter for garnishing.

My father always had a killer garden and usually put in about one hundred tomato plants. Mom usually canned these, but as the kids grew up and moved away–I was the youngest-there was less need for them. My father hadn’t quite adjusted yet by the time I was in college and one day, my parent visited bearing a bushel basket of tomatoes, and about a half bushel each of green peppers, eggplants, onions and zucchini. Oh and of course garlic, never lacking in a Hungarian’s house.

There was no way I could eat all of these before they would spoil, so I took them down to Thom and John’s house. They took one look at the produce and exclaimed “We’ll make ratatouille!” I had never heard of the dish, which they told me was a wonderful Mediterranean stew made precisely those vegetables. We started by slicing the eggplant and then putting the slices into salt water to draw out the moisture. While these soaked, we boiled a huge pot of water and stuck each tomato with a fork and immersed it in the water for about 30 seconds. That made it very easy to peel each one. The steam rose up and soon the windows were fogged up and the house had that wonderful smell that hits your nose when you bit into a juicy ripe tomato. To avoid bitterness, it is best to remove the seeds from the tomatoes and you do this by slicing them transversally, and then squeezing the seeds out. I protested that we were losing too much of the juice that way, but they assured me that the flesh would be juicy enough. They had fine, razor-sharp Sabatier kitchen knives and pointed out the ebony handles and how perfectly weighted they were.

That Fall, Thom had started indulging his love of what is now called World Music. He would search the “International” bins of record stores and often come home with some new treasure. For a while he was fascinated with Chinese opera, which he had first heard when he had studied in Taiwan. Another time, he bought an album of popular Egyptian orchestral music, which featured the Oud, a stringed, balalaika-type instrument, hammered dulcimers, and violins. We also bought a number of the albums in the Nonesuch explorer series. The classic of this was called the Nonesuch Explorer, which had one or two pieces from the major musical styles this company featured. On this album, which has had a big influence on film makers and musicians over the year (I’ve heard pieces quoted in Fellini Films and Joni Mitchell albums), there were a number of pieces of traditional Japanese music for shakuhachi (the bamboo flute) and Koto (a long zither). When I heard this type of music, I rushed out and bought the two albums that from which these pieces had been culled.

We probably listened to these pieces the day we made the ratatouille, though I am sure we also put on some popular French songs to celebrate the dish we were serving as well. The next step was to dry the slices of eggplant and fry them in olive oil. Leaching the water from them removes the bitterness and also stops them from soaking up gallons of oil, which they would do if you fried them untreated. We next fried the zucchini, which we had also sliced into disks about a half inch thick. Finally, we cored the green peppers and sliced them into circles along with the onions. We were ready to assemble the ingredients for cooking.

In a huge deep cooking pot, we started with a layer of tomatoes, a layer of zucchini, a layer of eggplant, onions, green peppers and a smashed clove or two of garlic. On top of these we put a number of herbes de Provence-basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, and rosemary. My mother had started cooking with herbs over the previous couple of years and I believe most of these came from our garden. It was then time to put down and season another round of layers. By the time we were done the vegetables were right up at the top and the low heat beneath the pot had already started to coax the natural juices out. We topped it up with water, covered it, and then let it stew for about two hours while we got drunk.

How can you describe the taste of a new dish which is a perfect harmony of such strong flavors as tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, parsley, rosemary, and thyme. One bite of ratatouille and I knew that I had to visit the Mediterranean when I went to France the following semester. You could just tastes the sun in this dish and smell the salt breeze of the ocean and smell the lavender and rosemary bushes baking under the cobalt-blue sky.

This song and that dish affect me that way still, some 36 years later.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto Number 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041 for violin

I first heard this piece in 1976 during the start of my senior year at Indiana University where I was studying French literature (see below).  Unlike E Major concerto I wrote about the other day, the minor scale gives the piece a sad undertone, which reminds me a bit of Vivaldi’s “Winter.”  Since Bach studied Vivaldi, that makes sense.

Bach Biography

Buy CDs or download MP3s of Bach’s Violin Concertos

My Garret

The fall of 1976 saw me returning to Indiana University for the first semester of my senior year. I moved into a small basement room of an apartment building that my girlfriend, Linda, had found during the summer. You couldn’t beat the price:  free. This was great as it allowed me to keep most of the money I had saved working in the factory that summer to pay for a semester abroad I was planning for January of 1977 in Paris.  The hitch was that I had to serve as the janitor for the middle section of the building. That required me to sweep the stairwell every day and mop it and the floors in the laundry room about once a week.

It seemed like a sweet deal, but I soon learned it had many drawback. First there was the room–it was literally a converted storage closet, about five feet wide and 10 feet long. On one wall was a set of shelves that served as dresser, bookshelf, and larder. On the other was a mirror and a small ledge where I could put my stereo. The desk sat at the end of the room under a small window through which I could catch a glimpse of the sky. It lack space for a bed, so every night I would put down the mattress that remained propped up against the wall.

The worst thing about the room was the noise. Heating pipes ran through it and hung several inches from the ceiling. When the heat came on, they started to creak and had the soothing effect of a tap dripping. To the left of my cubby hole sat the communal washers and dryers. The residents came at all hours of the night to do their laundry. Often I was awakened at 2:00 AM by the pounding of a pair of gym shoes clunking around in the drum of the dryer. I tried to readjust my schedule and slip back home during the day to sleep, but there was a day care center across the street from my little window and in the afternoons my room was filled with the whoops and cries of kids playing on the swings and monkey bars.

And finally there was the family that lived right above my room. The apartment complex was one of the choicest places off campus to live. It had been build in the 30s out of dark red brick, it had huge picture windows and the floors were made of lovely, golden oak. The family above me had a young child whom they let roller skate on these floors!

Oh the place wasn’t without it’s charm. My “kitchen” sat behind a steel door, down a flight of concrete stairs an and beside a great gas furnace in the boiler room. It consisted of a little gas stove, an old Formica and chrome table with two chairs, and a small cupboard. From time to time, the drains would back up and the floor of the boiler room would be covered with about an inch of raw sewage. I also had to cross through the boiler room and travel up another flight of stairs to get to bathroom. This was a ramshackle little space created in the corner of a storage room and had wobbly walls, a shower stall, as sink and a toilet. The commode sat, I soon realized, under the bedroom of a very active couple. The one highlight of my day was going for my post-prandial evacuation in the evening and listening to their grunts, groans, moans and shouts.

This apartment building stood on the West side of campus, whereas the French House was located on the East edge. The West side was closer to the old downtown part of Bloomington, and thus, had a few more interesting local hang-outs. Some of these began to form the basis of a new set of interests, which have become core to my being. Down the hill from my apartment, for example, sat a vegetarian restaurant called The Tao. It was run by an ashram led by a swami who drove a Porsche. The ashram ran a bakery and was attracting more and more disaffected, and dumb, kids of affluent families. It was a good place to hang out Sunday mornings having a Danish, drinking a cup of good coffee (before the days of Starbucks) and doing the Times crossword puzzle. Down the block, a Korean graduate student named Moon started a little oriental grocery store, which opened up the possibilities of a whole new cuisine to me. A few block down the road sat a co-op, where I used to work a few hours a week and load up on whole grains and my favorite herb, dried peppermint, which I would brew up as my morning tea. A few blocks further, sat two great used bookstores, one new and another used record store, and a Greek restaurant. Finally, in a little corner set of shops called Dunkirk Square sat a little coffee shop called “Two Bit Rush,” which was one the first espresso bar in town. (It got its namee because you could get a demitasse of espresso for 25 cents–two bits).  Even after I moved out of my hovel, for the next 3 years I pretty much spent all of my free time between these shops and they became the focus of my social and cultural life.

One piece of music that dates from this time, is today’s violin concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, by J.S. Bach.

Just the thing to accompany a meal of falafel and rice, while sitting in the garret, to drown out the sounds of the gurgling pipes.

Ricard Strauss: Four Last Songs

Ricard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” were the last pieces written by Strauss before his death in 1948.  He composed the music to accompany a soprano singing three poems by Herman Hesse and a fourth, entitled, “At sunset” by Joseph von Eichendorff.  Hauntingly and achingly beautiful, they signal acceptance of the great mysteries of life and death.

Here are the words to the last poem.

We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.

Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

Death givens poignancy and meaning to life and makes us cherish those even more who are left in its wake.  It is also a reminder to cherish those whom we love.  Remember, they may leave us at any point in time, and then all we will be left with are the memories of good times and those things perhaps left unsaid, but we regret not having said.

I am attaching a piece I wrote about 19 years ago (published in the Washington Post), when my daughter was young and asked me about death.  Three years ago, I lost my dearest friend, David, and several months later, my father.  I cannot believe two people who helped shape my character so much are now gone.  Sometimes I forget it’s no longer possible to pick up the phone and call them.

When the Question’s Death

by Kurt Nemes

One day, about six years ago, as I drove home from the grocery store with my then 6 year-old daughter, Claire, she startled me with this question:

“Daddy, what are the ways people can die?”

I gulped. I felt my stomach tighten.

Other parents had told me how their kids had gone through a morbid stage. “They grow out of it,” they assured me. But would I? My daughter’s question brought my own unresolved feelings about death right to the surface.

Death. What could I tell her? No one ever talked to me about death when I was a child. When John Kennedy was assassinated, I saw my parent cry for the first time, and…I….was confused. When a cousin about my age died at the age of 8, I was scared. Now, a middle-aged man, I found myself hyperventilating at Claire’s question.

Americans do not like talking about death. It didn’t use to be that way. When infant mortality rates were higher and families stayed put, death was more a part of daily life. People often died in the home, and the whole family grieved together.

Nowadays, childhood death is much less common and grandparents end up dying away from family…in hospitals or nursing homes. This out-of-sight mentality, coupled with our national obsession with health and fitness, has made many Americans feel, as one wag put it, that death is optional.

So how do you explain to kids something scares you (no pun intended) to death? Writers on the subject suggest three basic principles to keep in mind: First, include children in the process; second, gear the message to the age level; and finally, remain honest.

From what I have read, the worst thing to do is to keep the child in the dark. If a relative is dying, often parents do not let the child visit the person for fear it might upset the child. However, that deprives the child from saying goodbye. If the child is then excluded from participating in the funeral…two things could happen. Either they are left to mourn alone, which is a terrible thing, or they risk drawing the conclusion that they were somehow responsible. So including them in the process helps them accept and resolve the complex emotions they will face.

Of course, with children, it is always important to tailor the message to their developmental age level. The key here seems to be to listen to the questions they ask and then give the answer in small chunks and check for understanding. There are many difficult concepts to deal with here-the finality of death, theories of the afterlife, the nature of the soul, the impermanence of the body. Even adults have trouble with these concepts.

Fortunately there are a lot of books on death for kids aimed at different age level. For example, I saw one for very young children that compared death to the cycle of the seasons. Another for adolescents, showed how historically the rites and practices around death evolved and how different cultures mark the passage from life.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t read these book when my daughter, Claire, asked me her question. But, I had taken a parenting course that stressed being honest with kids about your own experiences and emotions, and that has gotten me through many difficult discussion with her. I acknowledged my own fear around the top and suddenly had a blinding flash of inspiration in which I saw a clear choice: either help my daughter work through her feelings or repeat what had happened to me. Framing it that way made it easy to talk.

“That’s a good question, Claire,” I said. “What are some ways you think people can die?”

“Well, they could take the wrong medicine and die, couldn’t they?”


“How else could they die, Daddy?”

“Well, I guess they could fall off a building.”

“How could that happen?”

“Ummmm….they could be working on a building and the wind could blow them off.”

“Yeah. Or they could get in an accident.”

“Yes, that’s true.” I glanced in the rear view mirror. She was smiling. I stifled a smile of my own.

“Or,” she exclaimed, “they could be standing next to someone who was drilling. And the drill could slip and go into their hand. And the blood would splash on the other people and they’d all die.”

I broke out laughing so hard that I had to pull the car over to the side of the road and stop. Claire was laughing, too.

Our laughter was that of relief. She had obviously been thinking about death for some time, but didn’t know if she could talk to me about it. Seeing people die on TV and thinking about it must worried her just as it did me as a child. Talking about death made it less scary. And nothing bad had happened.

Being honest about my feelings, helping my daughter process her own feeling, and trying to stay on her level had worked.

What’s more, for the first time in my life, I started to think about death without feeling afraid.

And then I realized the truth of something the psychologist, Eda LeShan once wrote: A child “looks out toward life without prejudice or deceit or meanness, and all through a child’s growing years we are given the most precious gift of all-a chance to feel like a child again ourselves.”


Download MP3s or buy CD of Strauss: Four Last Songs

Wikipedia on Four Last Songs


Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto Number 2 in E Major, BWV 1042 for violin

Bach wrote three concertos for solo violin–the A minor, the G minor and today’s entry, the E major.  Of the three, I like this one the best.  In Bach’s time, the concerto form for single instrument was relatively young, having been developed mostly by the Italian composers, especially Vivaldi. Bach studied the works of Vivaldi, even going so far as to transcribe some of his works for the keyboard.

The E Major concerto is a wonderfully upbeat piece that I had the pleasure of hearing live twice when my oldest daughter was taking violin lessons in her teens.  Her teacher’s more advanced students performed the first movement of this concerto at different recitals. It is quite an impressive, uplifting piece, light in an Italian way and not at all moody as the form would later become in the hands of Beethoven and Brahms. The first movement has a fast, almost jig-like rhythm which propels it along at an astounding pace. The second movement, an adagio, is stately and florid, yet dignified. The final passage goes back to the quick allegro pace, but with a hint of a thoughtful undercurrent.

In style and tone, it reminds me of one of the Brandenburg concertos. And since Bach borrowed from himself quite frequently, that makes perfect sense. It is one of Bach’s most accessible works, full of energy and life and deserves to be in anyone’s basic library of classical music.  It was fitting music for one of the sunniest parts of my life (see below).

Bach Biography

Buy CDs or download MP3s of Bach’s Violin Concertos

My Life (Continued)

The summer of 1976 marked a huge psychological turning point for me, because it was the summer I turned 21.

In my white bread, lower middle class background there were few official rites of passage that were not religious. Getting your drivers license was one and turning 21 the other. Officially, I had already been an adult for three years: I could vote and be sent off for canon fodder in the next war. But in my state at least, the real door to adult hood would not open until you hit the age of 21. I’m talking of course of drinking age. Until I hit 21, I had to slip over the state line to Michigan (where the drinking age was 18) on weekends to buy beer and hang out in bars. Now I could drink in my own home town.

When I turned 21, on June 13, 1976 my girl friend, Linda, drove up from Indianapolis. I think my parents had gone away for the weekend or for their summer vacation and I relished being alone with her in a real house and not a dorm room. She and Thom Klem and another friend with whom I had started spending more time, Jerzy Strachen, went out to a small bar near Jerzy’s house, called The Oaken Bucket to toast my manhood.

It was an odd evening. There was some friction between Jerzy and Thom. They had gone to high school together and roomed in the same dorm at Indiana University before Jerzy quit school and returned to South Bend to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a journeyman insulator. Thom did not approve. He thought Jerzy was wasting his talents. I think someone toasted me, and I remember thinking, “well, this is it?

Looking back at my attitude toward drugs and alcohol back then, I shudder. Though I had this driving urge to transform myself from the class clown into an intellectual, my preferred way of relaxing on the weekend–no, it wasn’t relaxation I sought, it was pure release–was to get drunk. The amazing thing is that no one ever told me different, save for one person. Of course, over the years seeing many people ruin their lives and the lives of their loved ones with drug addiction has caused me to temper my own drinking habits. But though I never became addicted to alcohol or drugs, it took me years to learn that I did not need them to relax or have fun or tap into my more creative side.

Jerzy and I started hanging out that summer. He initiated things. One day he called me up and asked if I’d like to go inner-tubing on the St. Joe River. I met him at Leaper Park and we drove up to the Michigan State line where we left one car and then drove back to the park. He pulled three inner-tubes from the back of his Fiat–one for each of us and a third for a cooler with beer. I was a little scared. I was a good swimmer and had often swam in the slow part of the river above the hydroelectric dam near my house. But few people ever swam in this part of the river-the current was too fast, and there was a lot of submerged debris. My father told me he had almost drowned as a youth in this part of river.

It was a hot summer day, and the water felt deliciously cool as we slipped in and the swift current pulled us out to the center. We seemed to hit it off, and as he told me about his life, I started to envy him. He seemed so worldly. Jerzy had excelled in French and had gone abroad to study in Aix-en-Provence. He had wispy strawberry blonde hair; he stood about 6 feet, and he had a charming manner. In France, he soon moved in with a girl who made jewelry. I floated along in awe of Jerzy, wondering why he had given it all up-broken up with the girl, moved back to the States, dropped out of school, and most of all how he could stand working with the other journeymen who did little else, according to him, but drink and play cards on the job and on the weekends party their brains out.

On another occasion, he and I drove to Bloomington for a visit. I stayed with Linda, and he with some other friends. We all met up on Sunday and had a little pick nick. We sat in a little park drinking wine, and eating slices of fresh green pepper and pieces of Gruyere cheese.

Everything Jerzy did seemed just so right–he could talk about French literature, cook up a wonderful meal with crab-stuffed pockets of phyllo dough, or pull a girl out onto the dance floor and whiz her around quite convincingly.

So this summer saw a number of changes in addition to the age hurdle. It was the first year that I started hanging out more with friends I had met at college and less with my old high school chums. My high school friends, Endicott and Tollar, were majoring in Math at Purdue University and I seemed to have fewer and fewer things in common with them. I felt more on the same wave length with Thom and Jerzy. Thom rarely was interested in going out drinking, and so I ended up calling up Jerzy more and more.

Claude Debussy: La Mer

Ravel and Satie have been perennial favorites for me and I started listening to more of Debussy’s symphonic works. I believe I read somewhere that La Mer was the piece that really made people sit up and take notice of Debussy.

His music is called Impressionistic and was a conscious break from the tradition that started with German classicism, ran through German romanticism, and ended in bombastic music of Wagner. Here are two quotes, one by Satie and the other by Debussy which show their thinking on this matter:

Satie: “I explained to Debussy how we French needed to break away from the Wagnerian adventure, which did not correspond with our natural aspirations. And I told him that I was not at all anti-wagnerian, but that we needed a music of our own – preferably without saurerkraut.”

Debussy: “Wagner was a beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn. There will always be periods of imitation or influence whose duration and nationality one cannot foretell – a simple truth and a law of evolution. These periods are necessary to those who love well-traveled and tranquil paths. They permit others to go much further.”

For those classically oriented audiences back then, La Mer must have seemed chaotic with its focus more on the colors and emotional impressions that different chord and instruments evoke and less on rhythm and form. Debussy tries to paint a musical picture of what it is like to be aboard a wind-powered ship, gently rolling on the swells under a canopy of a billion stars. I’d give him an A+.

I first heard La Mer in my junior year of college, in 1976. At the end of the school year, I returned home once again to find work in a factory. My brother Ken told me his company, Excel in Elkhart Indiana, was hiring. He had gotten a job a job there as their insurance and safety specialist. Ken had graduated with a degree in elementary education in 1974, but he had not liked student teaching.

The great passion of his life has been emergency rescue work. Our dad was a volunteer fireman, and in high school and college Ken had also helped out on fire calls. At one time, he ahd wanted to become a professional firefighter in South Bend, which was the only route to the job he really wanted: a paramedic. I don’t know if this is still true, but at the time those jobs were controlled by local politics. Unfortunately, we were registered democrats and South Bend had a republican mayor, so Ken was turned down when he applied.

But he threw himself into his job, and became quite good at it over the years. Outside of work, he became the chief of the local volunteer fire department and at work he instituted a number of safety programs and became quite an expert in his field. When I was back home for my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary in 1999, he told us that his company had been bought out by another and after over 20 years there, he was being down-sized. What a kick in the head. He landed on his feet, but at the time, it was dodgy.

I felt for Ken. I’ve had about 6 different employers since moving to the Washington, DC area and have had about 10 different jobs. So I have had to learn to deal with such upheavals. But in 1989, when I was laid off my first job, it seemed like the end of the world. So I know what he’s going through.

Back in 1976, however, business was good and Ken’s company hired about a hundred or so college students for the summer. Ken said it was well paid, so I told my friend, Thom Klem, and we both applied and got hired. Excel made pre-framed glass windows for the auto industry. They had three different operations: one for building the frames, another for glazing the glass, and the third for shipping. The windows they turned out were used as removable sun roofs for sports cars, sliding back windows for the cabs of pickup trucks, and large tinted windows for the back of customized vans. Oh yes, in another part of the plant, they also built doors for the cabs of huge semi-trailer rigs.

It was a pretty well-run factory. I started out working on a glazing furnace. I sat on a chair with a bin of safety glass on my right and another of frame sides on my left. I would pick up the slotted frames, squirt some liquid rubber in the grooves, press them into place on the sides of a piece of glass and attach the window to an overhead conveyor chain which snaked around the room and in and out of a huge oven. The oven made it pretty sweaty in there, and because of that it was one of the higher paid jobs in this part of the plant. Jobs were assigned by a bidding process the winning bid going to the person with the highest seniority. However, when a guy who had been hired the week before me bid on and got my job, I was not really disappointed.

Most of the college guys who worked there were of the friendly jock variety. They told funny jokes, got drunk every night, and talked about girls and the Rolling Stones. Needless to say, Klem–a Chinese and History major–and I–a French Literature major–had little in common with our co-workers and we sought each other out on breaks and at lunch. Sometimes we sat and talked. Other times we would just sit an read. A friend from college, knowing my affinity for Haiku sent me a book of Japanese Zen koans, which I would read on break and then ponder as I worked on the mind-numbing assembly line or swept up a pile of trash. Thom was reading Anatole France’s “Penguin Island.” He’d already been to France and told me stories to get me ready for the next school year.

My plan for the Fall was to live in free apartment my girl friend had found at Indiana University. She got it for free for being the janitor there and she was going to take a semester off and go to England in the fall. In the Spring, I would take a semester off and go to Paris to study. One day Thom gave me a copy of a book called “Village in the Vaucluse,” which was a sociological study of a small French town in the Midi done in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was so considerate: he wanted me to see the charm and quaintness of French village life, which he assured me still existed well in to the 1970s.

Quite a contrast from the factory. But you know, I actually liked working at this factory. It wasn’t an overly dangerous place; the workers–even the lifers–were closer to my age; and as I said, the pay was good.

And the money I earned was used to buy my plane ticket to Paris laster that year.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Debussy: La Mer

Franz Schubert: (The Witch King)

So for today’s piece, I have chosen a little piece by Schubert, which I know you have heard. It’s been used in so many films and cartoons that the second you hear it, you will recognize it. It is called, “The Witch King”, and starts out with a driving rhythm of ominous and dark sounding sounding chords. In the bass line, a short, deep and portentuous melody gives the piece a wonderful sense of foreboding. This piece is the perfect accompaniment for a film where some chase takes place on a moor in the driving rain. Or, in my case, when some stupid adolescent drives his car into a tree.

When I was 16, I got my driver’s license. That marked the beginning of my independence from my parents. My mother had a black 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, that she let me use in the evening and on the weekends, and I have always enjoyed getting in a car and just driving to see where the road takes me. Perhaps that is the great metaphor of my life. The journey seems more important than the actual arrival at some distant goal. You find so many interesting things along the way. If you’re a closet Buddhist, being in a car is the perfect analogy for living in the here and now. It is an opportunity to be mindful and present in the moment.

When I was in Indiana last week, I took a drive past the former house of my best friend from high school, Gary Endicott. He lived in a small house on the edge of a pretty heft chunk of farm land that had belonged to his grandfather. The house sat a about a half mile in from the Mishawaka hills. These rose up at the south end of town quite abruptly and from then on the geography was flat farmland all the way down to about Kokomo.

I used to go to Gary’s often to either study with him on week nights or to pick him up on weekends for our drinking binges. The way to his house was a familiar one for me as Gary lived not far from my maternal grandmother and my Uncle Walt who took care of her. I would have to drive over the St. Joseph River, through the town center of Mishawaka, which had been a quaint little manufacturing town in the early part of the century, and then up Main Street to the south side of town, through Belgian town. There I would turn right on Dragoon Trail and soon take a road that forked off to the left up into the hills. Where the two roads diverged, my successful first cousin John Pairitz lived at the top of the hill in a wonderful modern house he had designed. The road took a grand, sweeping curve up to the left and where it leveled off, there stood Gary’s house. Across the street was a ramshackle barn that housed a small saw mill which still served the farmers who lived in the area.

One day, perhaps while riding with Gary, I found there was another route up to his house. Instead of turning on to Dragoon, if I drove about a quarter of a mile and then turned right, another winding road snaked up the hill past wonderfully upscale houses that lie tucked away in the hardwood forest that covered the hill. This road came emerged from the trees and then went by a few more posh houses before coming out a few yards South of Gary’s. During my senior year in high school, I used to take this road more often because a girl whom I had a crush on, Harriet Schroeder, lived on it.

I also liked this road because it was fun to drive. The winding curves presented a challenge and made me feel a bit like a race car driver in my little four speed bug. And that almost led to my undoing.

One rainy summer weekend evening, my friend Paul Mankowski called me up to go out drinking. He had a friend named Dave Baker whose parents had a big, hulking Chevrolet station wagon. “Road Party!” Paul said and I was in. We loved to get a case of beer, climb into a big boat of a car, and then drive around in the countryside until about two in the morning. (Sometimes we didn’t always drink. I remember once going out to the country to watch a meteor shower and another time lying on the roof of my Volkswagen watching the aurora borealis, one year when it came so far south you could see it in Northern Indiana.)

On the night in question, we picked up Endicott. Time has made me forget what we did that night, but I distinctly remember dropping Gary off at his house. When we started off toward home, I told them we should take the alternate route. “It has a great hill!” “Yeah,” said Paul, who knew the road as well. Unfortunately Dave didn’t. At the top of the hill, we yelled “Gun it,” and Dave took off. At the first curve, Dave lost control on the wet road and the car went sailing into the wood and hit a tree head on. I was sitting in the back seat and was hurtled forward, hit the seat with my left hip and flew over and landed in Paul’s lap. The pain at first was sharp and blinding. We all checked each other. Dave’s head had hit the windshield and he had a gash in his forehead and his nose was swollen. Paul had managed to block his impact somehow and was unscathed. He left us and ran back to the Endicott’s to get help.

An ambulance soon arrived and packed Dave and me off to the hospital. My parents met us there and were greatly relieved when the X-rays showed no broken bones. When quizzed about how it happened, we only told them that Dave didn’t know the road and had lost control on the wet pavement. We omitted the fact that we had told Dave to gun the car and had done it for the thrill of it.

Did I learn my lesson? No. After my aches and pains went away by the middle of the next week, I was back in my Volkswagen, driving like a mad man. One night, I went to Dave’s house to see the car, which Paul told me had been towed back to his parents’ house. I hopped in my car and drove so fast I almost lost control driving around a familiar curve in the road not far from my house. When I got to Dave’s I was amazed to see the car. The front of the car was in the shape of a huge “Vee” where the tree had pushed the bumper almost up to the windshield. The engine had traveled downward and bent the frame, which now almost touched the ground under the driver’s seat. Inside the back of the driver’s seat, which was one continuous piece, was bent forward into a vee shape from the impact of my body hitting it.

What amazes me now is my attitude toward the whole episode. I thought it was “cool.” I drew no lesson from it. It did not scare me. In fact, I was glad it had happened: it gave me wonderful bragging rights at school. I regaled many a captive audience at school with my account of it. And What’s more it gave me an injury, that I could make the most of. I though it would be cool to have a bad back for the rest of my life, which I could tell people came from an accident in my youth.

Cars and youth. When my daughters neared their teens years later, I started to cringe. What would happen if they turned out as wild as I was! In the prosperous Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC where I lived, alcohol was the drug of choice among high school students–it was available, and most kid thought “my parents do it too, so who are they to say?”

I’m happy to say, my daughters are 27and 25now and made it through those years quite well. Maybe because they turned out not to be big classical music fans.

Schubert Bio

Download MP3 of “Erlkönig” (The Erl-King)


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