December 7, 2014 1 Comment
When I returned to my hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana for Christmas vacation in December of 1976, I was filled with excitement. In January, I would travel to Paris! My plan was to enroll at the Alliance Francaise or the Sorbonne for a semester and whip my spoken French into shape. I had a good reading and writing command of the language but managed to get to my senior year with the spoken skills of a two year-old. I chose Paris on the recommendation of my friend Thom Klem, who had a friend whose sister was studying there and to whom he had written asking for help in getting me acclimated.
My whole family shared in my excitement as well. At my grandmother’s house, where the family of my mother’s siblings met every Sunday, aunts and uncles wished me well, asked me questions about my studies and told stories about the French. I had a cousin who had studied in France. His mother, my favorite aunt, Marty, told us how he had been grossed out when his host family, who lived on a farm, slaughtered a pig and asked him to help. It was ironic because my aunt had grown up on a farm and just one generation earlier this would have been commonplace in the States.
Aunt Marty worked at the local library and her other son did not go to college. For that reason, she doted on me and sent me letters and books under the nom de plume, Marmaduke. For Christmas, she gave me a small travel diary to record my experiences and observations on my trip. That was the only time a member of my family ever encouraged me to write.
I made a lot of visits that Christmas vacation. My brother, Bob, and his then-wife Cindy lived just over the border in Michigan. They invited me up for dinner one night and we took a walk through an open field while huge flakes of snow drifted down on us and hushed the entire countryside. My sister, Joan, and her husband, Tim, were renting an apartment in South Bend and they organized a farewell Sunday brunch for me. I cooked a pasta with garlic and parmesan dish that I had learned the previous semester. I used too much garlic and parmesan, which turned the whole into a gluey mass, which was quite overpowering. They all politely ate it, not wanting to dampen my enthusiasm for things foreign. They still talk about how much garlic I used.
United Airlines had stopped flying its 737s into South Bend sometime in the early 1970s, so my ticket was for Chicago to Paris. My parents volunteered to drive me to the O’Hare airport–90 miles away. A few days before we were to leave, Northern Indiana was hit by a very large blizzard, which buried the area under a three-foot layer of snow. I had never seen so much snow. My father was a volunteer fireman and he trudged the mile to the fire station and returned with a jeep outfitted with a snow blade and he ploughed us out.
The roads remained fairly impassible for several days and I was starting to get cabin fever. So one day I decided to walk about 5 miles into South Bend to visit my friend Jerzy Strong. Strong lived in the bottom of a two story house, the upper floor of which he rented out to a middle-aged woman.
I loved his “bachelor pad.” The front door opened into a small sun-room lined on both sides with chest-high book shelves. Jerzy had studied French but was quite bright and all kinds of language, literature, history and science books lined the shelves. Above the right shelf, windows ran the length of the entryway and Jerzy had hung some gay stained-glass windows there. This breezeway entered into the sitting room on whose right a massive floor to ceiling bay window bowed outward. Jerzy loved exotic plants and he had a number of euphorbia—crown of thorns, pencil plants, and other of these old world succulents (some quite massive)—growing in front of the windows.
Jerzy greeted me at the door and welcomed me in. He had a friend staying with him, a violin major at Indiana University named Doug W****. Doug stood before a music stand when I walked in and put his violin down to greet me. He didn’t look like my idea of a musician—he was a tall and thin, with long wiry hair that he wore parted in the middle. He talked slowly and with a slight whine in his voice and he sounded a bit like a cross between a surfer and a hippie. Jerry later told me that he had done a lot of psychedelic drugs in high school and college. If my memory serves me correctly, his father was a judge in Elkhart, and he had thrown Doug out of his home, which is why he was staying at Jerry’s.
Jerzy suggested we do something appropriate on a day where everything was shut down because of the blizzard. So we walked to his neighborhood bar. Jerzy drank a lot and ordered the three of us his favorite drink—a shot of Jack Daniel’s Bourbon with a beer chaser. I liked this bar—it had a down-home feel to it, not at all stuffy and was full of the lower-middle class trappings I had grown up with: a pool table, a shuffleboard, a moose head, and a juke box filled with tacky country western songs. This was not a pickup bar. It was where you went to tell fishing stories, swap dirty jokes and flirt with a bleach blonde divorcee.
On this day, everyone was nice to us in the bar. Jerzy was well liked and even respected. He’d been to college, but it hadn’t gone to his head. Why he had even dropped out and now was making more money than a college professor putting insulation in a nuclear power plant in Bridgeman, Michigan. It was odd that Jerzy, a guy who had a genius-level IQ, liked places like this. And it took me years to understand the insidious and lure and destructive effects of alcohol. (It would take me about a year before anyone would tell me that binge drinking was not cool.) But Jerzy was so well-read and urbane. Thom Klem used to call him Alcibiades, the chameleon-like ancient Greek who could adapt his personality to the ideas, values and mores of whatever was the most advantageous side to be on at the time.
The next day, Jerzy drove me back to my parents’ house and he wished me well on my trip to Paris. On the weekend, my parents loaded me and my suitcase in the car and we set out for Chicago. Unfortunately, a second snow-storm hit that day, and that slowed us down considerably. The snow came down as thick as fog and we had to go about 20 miles an hour on the interstate for about half of our journey. I fretted in the back seat, worrying that I would miss my flight. But once we crossed the Illinois line and got to the West of Chicago, the sun suddenly appeared and the rest of the journey was almost like a drive on a spring day.
At the airport, we had a few hours to kill. Mom went to have a little walk around in the shops while dad and I sat in a cafeteria drinking coffee and reading the paper. At one point, I looked up and saw he was doing the crossword puzzle. Until that point in time, I had never thought much about his preoccupation with them. I often found them half finished in the pile of papers at the side of our couch. He and were often at odds when it came to politics and my thoughts and ideas. Why should I care about his interests? A few weeks before, I went to a self-serve photo booth at a local mall to get some photos taken for identity cards should I need them in France. I purposely posed to look like a tortured intellectual—hair slicked back, a sullen look on my face. When I showed them to my dad, he got very angry at me and said I should start acting my age—I was nearly 22.
So as we sat in the airport, I was surprised when he asked me if I ever did the crossword puzzles. When I said no, he said I really ought to: they were good for one’s vocabulary and they were stimulating as well. He showed me the one he was working on. “Look,” he said, “sometimes they use the same words over and over again. Like this one: ‘to soak flax.’ That’s ‘ret.’ It keeps your mind sharp.” He gave me the puzzle to work on. I found a number of errors in the answers he put in and after a while found that I had finished it. I was hooked. Since then, I have enjoyed doing at least one crossword a week. For so many years, I denied that my father, being the opinionated guy he was, had ever done anything for me. Now, years later, and with kids of my own, I see how arrogant my youth had made me.
Today’s piece always gets a lot of airplay around Christmas and that is why I chose it to accompany today’s memory of Christmas 1976. I actually first heard it in the Woody Allen movie, Love and Death, which was a parody of all those wonderful Russian philosophical novels by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Gogol. I had read a number of these during my “Russian Intellectual” phase in high school, which was the source of a lot of arguments with my father at the time. It was nice to see Woody Allen lampoon these in a fond way.
The reason the suite gets played at Christmas is one passage called “Troika.” This piece imitates the sounds of the sleigh bells on a sledge thundering across the frozen fields at night. This section gets played ad nauseum, but the entire suite, which is extracted from a film score that Prokofiev did in 1934.
Until I started doing this site, I had not really listened to very much Prokofiev. Oh I could identify several pieces from hearing them on request shows. But I never really gave him serious consideration, maybe because of hearing a bowdlerized version Peter and the Wolf as a child. That somehow made me think of him as a superficial composer. And for some stupid reason, I thought that he was one of those Socialist Realist composers. He had failed to make it big abroad in the 1920s and returned to Russia as something of a celebrity. Eventually, he was accused of excessive Formalism in his music and had to issue a humiliating public apology for his crimes against the state.
Listening to him now, however, I find a renewed interest in his work. He managed to make a successful bridge between the exciting cacophonous and dissonant trends of 20th century music and the rich Russian classical and ethnic traditions from which he arose. For example, he was one of the first composers to embrace the saxophone, which you can hear in the “Troika”.
It’s amazing how much you can miss in life, when you prejudge.