The Ballad of Young Bill Merklee

My paternal grandfather, William Earl Merklee Sr., died six years before I was born. I only “know” him via stories and some recently acquired photographs. I am not named after him. I am named after his son, William Earl Merklee, Jr. My father had his reasons.

William Earl Merklee was born in 1891 in what was then West Englewood, New Jersey. He was the oldest of the six children of William Henry Merklee and the former Susan Hoyt Tremper. His father was a news agent whose family had been in New York City for less than a hundred years, having come over from Germany via Holland. His mother’s family was largely Dutch, and had roots that reached up and down the Hudson valley and back several centuries. Mount Tremper, New York, is named for one of her ancestors.

This is the earliest story I know about my grandfather, an event that I believe colored everything that came after: When he was six years old, he shot and killed his younger brother Harry with a pistol they found while playing in their parents’ bedroom.

A small newspaper article about the incident says more about the sorry state of journalism at the time than is does about what happened. Somehow, the writer was magically present in the bedroom, so he could quote my grandfather as having said, “Harry, I am going to shoot you.” I do know the family moved to Dumont shortly thereafter. In a time before the telephone and the widespread ownership of cars, one could conceivably make a fresh start just moving across the county. I also know my grandfather’s parents eventually divorced. It’s not difficult to imagine the pressures that this kind of tragedy produced, and how ill-equipped they were — by today’s standards — to deal with them.

When my grandfather was about twelve years old, he took a rifle from the house for some shooting practice. This was not unusual; at the turn of the last century, you could hunt rabbits and squirrels in the wilds of Haworth, Harrington Park and Closter. On this day, however, he decided he would try and hit the weather vane atop the steeple of Dumont’s Old North Church. The story goes he hit it on the first shot, sending it spinning wildly, and he soon caught hell from his father, who had become a prominent member of that church as well as a member of the school board.

In the summer of 1969, the Old North Church was having its steeple restored. The weather vane, shaped like a multi-pointed shooting star, was taken down and displayed in the lobby of the bank across the street. My dad took me to see it. One of the star’s lower points was splayed open; my grandfathers’ shot had not been a bull’s eye. Onlookers wondered what had happened, saying it must have been a lightning strike. Dad knew exactly what had happened, but no one seemed particularly interested in the truth.

William Earl Merklee married Adele Fox of Dumont in 1910. They were both nineteen years old. They named their first child, a son, Harry Root Merklee, after the brother William had accidentally killed and after Adele’s maternal grandfather, Edward Root, a veteran of the Civil War with whom she and her mother had been living in a house on Niagara Street since Adele’s father had walked out on them.

Another son, William Earl Merklee, Jr., arrived in 1917. My dad, Norman Harold Merklee, was born on August 19, 1919. His middle name comes from one of his uncles. No one knows where his first name came from. He never liked it. A fourth son, Warren Fox Merklee, was born the next day. It was a surprise to everyone when Adele, who had just given birth to Norman, went into labor again just after midnight. They named this son after the physician in attendance, Dr. Warren, who would later become mayor of Bergenfield. The twins were born in a house on Quackenbush Avenue in Dumont.

It’s not clear when my grandfather’s drinking became a problem. According to my dad, it was a problem for as long as he could remember. The pastor of the Old North Church was apparently criticized by his congregation for socializing and playing checkers with my grandfather. The pastor explained he was simply taking the battle to the devil, when really he just enjoyed my grandfather’s company. I was told he could be quite charming.

That charm enabled him to find work during the Great Depression. He could find work, but he couldn’t hang on to it. His alcoholism would always make him unreliable. And he would squander much of his earnings on drink. In the early 1930s he landed a job as the superintendent of an apartment building in Weehawken. It was an ideal situation: A paid position plus a rent-free apartment for his family. He was also put in charge of collecting the rent from the other tenants. When it was discovered my grandfather was using some of the collected rent money to buy booze, he had to pack up his family and move out in the middle of the night.

It fell to his oldest son, Harry, to provide for the family. Even then, they sometimes could only afford to eat cornflakes three times a day. My grandmother made her boys’ shoes last longer by using the cardboard from the cornflakes boxes to line the worn-through soles. She even turned burlap flour bags into underwear for them. When there was a little extra money, my grandmother would buy supplies to bake extra loaves of bread. She would wrap them in wax paper and then have her sons sell them around the neighborhood. They could occasionally feast on fish, rabbit or squirrel when the boys were able to go hunting or fishing.

When my grandfather was desperate for booze money, he was not above pawning some of Harry’s fishing or hunting gear.

Home life became unbearable for my father. When my grandfather wasn’t out getting bombed, he was home listening to baseball on the radio. The shouting, over-the-top announcers grated on my father’s nerves so much that he completely soured on the sport. (When I was growing up, no one watched or listened to baseball in my house until 1969, when it seemed everybody in the neighborhood was a Mets fan. Everybody except my father.) And when my grandfather wasn’t doing that, he was having dish-throwing brawls with his wife. It’s one of the main reasons my dad joined the Navy in the summer of 1941 — just to get the hell away from it all.

Ten years later, William Earl Merklee Sr. was dead, in a sanitarium in Newark, New Jersey. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn, with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Just Dad and my grandmother attended. Dad told me he was simply providing transportation for his mom and that he never shed a tear.

Only twice did I hear my father speak of his father with anything close to admiration. The first instance was when sixteen-year-old William Earl Merklee Jr. lay dying in a hospital. He was suffering the complications of bronchiectasis, a fatal lung infection in the time just before antibiotics. One of the complications was the swelling of his face from an accumulation of fluid under the skin. My grandfather was at that hospital every day, massaging and pushing fluid out through small incisions to relieve the pressure, and doing whatever else he could to make his son comfortable. My Uncle Billy, my namesake, was laid to rest near his grandmother at the Old South Church in Bergenfield in 1933.

The other instance involved the family dog. My grandfather was sitting on the front porch of his house, letting the dog roam around the yard and the immediate vicinity. It was a common practice; there were no leash laws. The dog wandered across the street to do some of his business in a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor, a strapping Polish fellow, took exception to this and gave the dog a swift kick in the groin. The dog howled and collapsed in agony. My grandfather flew off the porch and laid the guy out with one punch.

***

In the late 1970s I was working as a driver for Betty Lee Pharmacy in Bergenfield. I made a delivery to an elderly gentleman named John Holmes. He was in a wheelchair. While a woman who was also there (she could have been a home health aid or perhaps his daughter) was taking care of the payment, Mr. Holmes starting telling me how he had lived in Bergenfield all his life and once owned a construction company that had built most of the houses in the northwest corner of town. Then he asked me my name.

“Bill Merklee,” I said. His face brightened.

“Young Bill Merklee’s boy?” he said. I immediately knew who he meant.

“I’m his grandson,” I said, and told him how young Bill Merklee had married Adele Fox and had four sons. Mr. Holmes was happy to hear this; Adele was “quite a looker” he said.

“Your grandfather was some ball player,” he said, and he proceeded to tell me all about it, how all the towns had baseball teams and how they traveled by train to play other towns and about the crowds that always turned out to watch. Here I was, listening to a guy who knew nothing of my grandfather’s early tragedy and nothing of what was to come. For him, Bill Merklee was a good-looking kid who could play any position and almost always got a hit. Mr. Holmes couldn’t know he was providing a warm, sepia-toned coda to what was the otherwise sad song of my grandfather’s life. And of course, I got in trouble with the boss for getting back to the store so late.

***

Flash forward to 2014. A kind stranger tracked me down via the Internet and told me he had a photo album that might belong to me. It turned out to be my father’s. I don’t know how this gentleman came across it, but I’m grateful he did.

It’s the photographic companion to all the stories my dad ever told me. Except that they don’t tell the whole story. Nobody was photographing the fights, or sneaking shots of my grandfather passed out drunk, or recording the sadness. Everyone was on their best behavior, usually smiling, and they generally seemed to be enjoying themselves.

There are pictures of my grandfather in his declining years, fishing in Harrington Park and down the shore. Even with everything that had happened, family bonds, however strained, were still there. For all the pain and misery my father talked about, he still kept the pictures.

[2015]

wemerklee

Dreams So Real

Good night Irene, good night Irene / I’ll see you in my dreams

This has troubled me from time to time: Why haven’t I had any dreams about some of the people closest to me who have died?

Some say the dream state is a way to contact the departed. There are traditions that maintain that the world of our dreams is another aspect of reality, even a separate reality. Others say it’s nothing more than a manifestation of our brains doing filing, sorting, and even problem solving during our physical downtime. I can tell you from experience there really is value in “sleeping on it.”

I’m not going to discuss any of that here. Anyone who has ever awoken in a cold sweat from a heart-pounding nightmare, or awoken laughing (my favorite), or seen a dog whimper and move it’s legs while sleeping — knows that dreams produce real reactions in the waking world. No, my main question was always “Why dream of some people and not others?”

After more than 24 years, I finally dreamt about my late sister Barbara.

I don’t know why this should have taken so long. Only a few days after a friend of mine died from injuries he suffered in a car accident, I dreamt he was in the kitchen of the apartment I was living in at the time. In the dream, I awoke in the late morning to the sound of someone in the kitchen. I got up to see if it was my roommate. To my surprise, it was my deceased friend Rick, leaning back against the stove. I said, “Rick, aren’t you dead?” He just smiled, and I woke up.

Some time later, a co-worker died after a long struggle with cancer. A number of us had donated blood during his treatment. In this dream, I was wearing a business suit. I had fallen asleep on a toilet in an ornate Art Deco public restroom that had marble sinks and counters and small, black and white floor tile. But there were no stalls to speak of, so there I was out in the open, half asleep on the throne with my plants down around my ankles. Other men in business suits came and went without disturbing me. When I fully awoke in the dream I noticed one of the guys standing at a urinal looked like the recently departed co-worker.

“Nick?” I said. He zipped up and turned around. It was him. “I thought you were dead.”

He also just smiled, put his finger to his lips as if to say “Shh,” and slowly nodded his head side to side.

In my dream about Barbara, I found myself in front of the house in Bergenfield where I grew up. It was a mix of the way it looks now (I sometimes drive past it when I go to visit my brother in the next town) and the way it looked then: the pine tree my father planted was still in the front yard, but the fence and hedges that ran between us and the neighbor’s house were gone. I walked into the front yard, and there was Derek, one of the cats we have now. He’s an indoor cat and never even tries to venture outside, so this was unusual. I told him to get in the house (a house he’s never lived in) and held the side door open for him. As I did this, I noticed out the corner of my eye that Ben, a guy I used to work with at the local newspaper, was in the neighbor’s yard measuring a post for a split-rail fence. In the dream, this seemed perfectly normal. He didn’t notice me and I said nothing as I entered the house behind Derek.

The kitchen looked pretty much the same as the last time I saw it, which was 13 years ago as we were clearing out the house to be sold. I also felt like I was 30 again. No one else was in the house. I walked to the back where our childhood bedrooms had been, and there was Barbara, wearing what might have been a hospital gown since it was open enough in the back to see she was thin and frail, like when she was going through chemo. Her hair was up and she was sorting though a bunch of things in the room that she once shared with our sister Cindi, putting things in scrapbooks.

“Hey you,” I said, “What are ya doin’?” In the dream, at least, it seemed perfectly normal to see her — no dramatics or tearful histrionics. I was just happy. She looked at me and smiled. “We’re going to get something to eat,” I continued. “Want to join us?”

“Thank God,” she said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t eat my one meal a day.”

“Oh good,” I said, “cancer humor.” And I hugged her and noticed how short and bony she was. “It’s so good to hug you.”

I awoke gently, not in tears but with a sense of wonder. I immediately started replaying the dream in my head, over and over so I would not forget the details, and then wrote them down. I finally had a dream about her, and I was happy. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

My wife and I sometimes try to interpret the symbolism in our dreams. Of course it’s a completely amateur endeavor. At the very least, we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what real-life experiences probably informed what was happening in dreamland.

In the one about Nick, the ornate restroom was likely based on a similar one I’d used at the New York City archives when I was doing some genealogy research (though it did have privacy stalls). I imagine this became the setting of the dream because it resembled how busy the restroom would get at the newspaper where I worked, after the morning sales meeting as everyone prepared to hit the road.

Rick’s dream was very realistic because it took place in the house I was currently living in, and nothing seemed out of place or unusual except for Rick being in the kitchen.

So I set about identifying the elements of the dream about my sister. The outside of the house was a combination of the way it had been when we lived there and the way it looks today. I can construe that to represent a bridge between past and present. The former coworker measuring fence posts next door makes sense because both my sister and I had worked at the newspaper with him. The cat probably should have been Alex, a gray Abyssinian my late sister had brought home as a kitten only to discover she was allergic to him. She couldn’t bear to send him back, so I adopted him and he became my best friend of 17 years. Derek, one of our current cats, seems to have stood in for Alex. Derek is diabetic, and I give him an insulin shot twice a day. So that may be some allusion to having helped care for my sister when she was ill. The inside of the house appeared largely as I had left it the last time I was there. And Barbara looked only a little healthier than the last time I saw her alive, so there was a sense of picking up where we had left off. I’m not surprised that the hug felt very real; I have many tactile memories of hugging my sister.

But what triggered this dream after all this time? I believe it was a “Throwback Thursday” photo posted by a friend on Facebook. She is a survivor of ovarian cancer, and she posted a TBT photo of herself from when she was undergoing treatment. I’m so certain this photo was the catalyst for my dream that I thanked her for posting it and told her what had happened to me.

There are many interpretations of what dreams may or may not be. I’m always happy to discuss all the possibilities, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I got to hold my sister again, and I am so grateful.

[2015]

dreams

Mark Becker (1960-2014)

My friend Mark Becker died in a horrific accident on the New York State Thruway on February 27th. He was on his way to teach a class at Bard College. He was 53 years old.

Like me, he went to college a bit later in life. Unlike me, he didn’t stop with a bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn his master’s, and then to teach at Columbia University and at Bard. His specialty was geographic information systems (GIS). His work included documenting the effects of global warming and mapping the most effective placement of resources in the battle against AIDS in Africa. He was also the Associate Director of the Geospatial Applications Division for the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

All of this grew, I believe, out of his crowning achievement: the co-founding of the Bergen Save the Water Action Network (SWAN) with his partner of 30 years, Lori Charkey. Bergen SWAN has been responsible for the preservation of thousands of acres of sensitive forests and wetlands in Bergen County, New Jersey and Rockland County, New York that would have otherwise become home to townhouses and shopping malls.

A memorial service was held for him on March 23rd. Lori and her cohorts managed to turn a rather sterile corporate auditorium into a magical homage to Mark, complete with live plants, live music, water fountains, and wind chimes. The tributes were remarkable, mainly because they showed a life well lived in so many circles. I’m sure my stories were as much of a surprise to his academic colleagues as theirs were to me.

Here is what I had to say about my friend:

I met Mark through my sister Barbara. She passed way in 1990. I find it very poetic that we are here celebrating Mark on what would have been Barbara’s 51st birthday.

I was forming a band around 1978 and needed a guitar player. My sister suggested I call Mark. I think my first question for him was “Can you play Led Zeppelin?”

Let me tell you: He could play Led Zeppelin. And The Beatles. Jeff Beck. The Allman Brothers. Yes. The Police. Steely Dan. Mahavishnu Orchestra. His bandmates who are here today can attest to his musical gifts. Mrs. Becker, thanks for letting us rehearse in your basement. We apologize for stapling carpet to the walls.

But music was only the beginning for me and Mark. He was curious about absolutely everything, so any subject was fair game for the most intense conversations. For him, everything was amazing, and that outlook was contagious.

In the mid 80s we were roommates in a house in Westwood, NJ. It was a growing experience, especially for me since it was my first time living away from home. I was a slob. Mark was not. Neither of us liked confrontation. After so many days of me leaving my unwashed dishes in the sink, I came home to find them stacked in the middle of my bedroom floor. I didn’t get mad. I washed my dishes. Lesson learned: Clean up your own damn messes. We had a great couple of years in that house; a lot of music and a lot of laughs. It’s also where I got to know Lori, and to marvel at the life she and Mark were creating together.

Mark was the closest thing to a Taoist I ever met. He would never have called himself that, which made him the best kind of Taoist. He was contemplative. He did not impose himself on nature, but rather sought to understand his place in it. He was one of the most peaceful souls I have ever encountered. The first copy of the Tao Te Ching I ever read was Mark’s.

I couldn’t know it at the time, but he helped put me on a path that would lead me to embrace Zen Buddhism. Mark did this, not by proselytizing or by pedagogy, but by being who he was, by living his convictions, and by being my friend. I wish I had thanked him.

I can’t help but note the passing this year of two champions of the environment for whom music was as vital as breathing. When Pete Seeger passed away earlier this year, Arlo Guthrie’s response was “Well, of course he passed away! But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

For my friend Mark Becker, I leave you with a similar sentiment from Walt Whitman:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

 All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed . . . and luckier.

[2014]

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We Are What We Consume

WHEN MY daughter was very young, we were watching TV together. I don’t recall the program, but it wasn’t a cartoon, and at a certain point, one character hit another. It wasn’t slapstick; it was mild TV violence by my standards.

Not by my daughter’s.

She was horrified. She had never seen anyone do that to another person. I felt like the worst parent in the world. I turned the set off and did my best to explain that what she had seen wasn’t real; it was acting.

But even then, I knew her reaction was the right one, the true one.

Today, her reaction to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., is like so many others: Wouldn’t the world be a better place without guns?

Once again, her reaction is the right one, the true one.

When I was a younger man, I wrote impassioned letters to the editor of my local newspaper about the need for gun control. I’ve had little personal experience with gun violence, other than the story of how my paternal grandfather had accidentally killed his younger brother when they were mere toddlers with a pistol found under their father’s pillow. I can only imagine the effect on him and his family. The only clues of which I’m aware: His parents divorced, he named his first child after his slain brother, and he died a hopeless alcoholic and rests in an unmarked grave.

No, most of my experiences with gun violence come from the news. I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy assassinations. Dr. King. John Lennon. And far too many special reports of carnage in every corner of America. In other countries as well: I haven’t been this shaken since the slaughter in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996.

I would love a world without guns. But time has made me realize that will never happen. I do believe in strict gun laws at a national level, so one cannot circumvent one state’s laws by simply going to another state.

The Founding Fathers could not have imagined the weapons that are now our reality. It was a simpler time, and the means of defense were much simpler, too. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was meant to ensure a well-equipped militia in lieu of a standing army, which was seen as an instrument of government tyranny. But now we have a standing army, and the idea that armed citizens could reasonably do battle against it is laughable to me.

In that regard, the Second Amendment is almost as quaint as the Third, prohibiting the quartering of soldiers in private houses. As for self-defense: I have no quarrel with it. And sports? If you need a 100-round magazine to hit a paper target or take down a deer, you’re no marksman. Limits must be set. Just about every other industrialized democracy on the planet has shown that reasonable gun regulations reduce gun violence. Surely, we can follow suit.

For the record, I am a gun owner, of the kind the Founders would actually recognize. I have no use for the National Rifle Association.

So why do I find it so difficult to write another angry piece to a newspaper editor about gun control? Because the problem is bigger than just guns.

We are what we consume. That doesn’t just go for food. It means books, movies, television, games, music, magazines, websites — everything we take into our minds and hearts, and everything we allow into our children’s. Garbage in, garbage out. This is a dark side of the free market: Sell the people what they want. Satiate every impulse and desire, and we end up valuing the wrong things. More than wealth, status, appearance, possessions, ego — we should value each other.

Granted, in a free society, we cannot condone censorship. We can, however, exercise discretion in the marketplace: Turn your back on junk culture, and it will whither away. That seems as likely to happen as getting rid of all guns, but if we at least move in that direction, things can only get better. Not perfect, but better.

Some have claimed the increased violence in our society stems from driving God and religion out of public schools and the public square. I disagree with that reasoning, but not with the larger point.

There is a spiritual aspect to our nature. We neglect it at our peril. We don’t necessarily need to get religion, but we each need to acknowledge that part of ourselves and care for it as surely as we need to care for our physical, intellectual and emotional well-being. It’s the part of us that knows we’re all connected. We’re born with it.

My young daughter’s first reaction to violence was the right one. We’re born with that awareness, and we too easily let it slip away. We need to honor that awareness every day.

[2012]

Originally published under a different title in the December 30, 2012 edition of The Record.

Harry Root Merklee (1912-1971)

Today my Uncle Harry would have turned 99.

He was the oldest of four sons. My dad always said it was Harry who got the family through the Great Depression. He was like a second father to me. He gave me my first Bible, my first dictionary, my first rifle, my love of the mountains, and along with my dad, my love and appreciation of America and its history.

While I have no recollection of my parents ever hitting me, I very clearly recall the day when I was five years old, bumped my head getting into my dad’s car, and uncharacteristically uttered an expletive. As soon as the word left my lips, I felt Harry’s hand smack the back of my head. It was the only time he ever did something like that. Lesson learned.

In the late 50s, Harry purchased a little over two acres of land in Sussex County, New Jersey. His plan was to build a house there for himself and his aging mother, to grow his own food, and to hunt and fish in the as yet unspoiled countryside.

First he built a small, one-room cabin in which he could live while working on his project. Shortly after the house’s foundation was put in, he took ill, and the house project was abandoned. But he kept the land and the cabin, and it became my favorite summer destination.

My dad and I (and later my younger brother Joe) would ride out there with Harry in his ramshackle Ford Falcon. It really was paradise for a young boy. Fishing. Exploring. Catching newts. Learning to shoot targets with a muzzle-loading rifle. Campfire cooking. The night sky ablaze with more stars than I’d ever seen. The thrilling mystery of being able to pull in stations from Canada through the clear night air on the portable radio. The stillness of the deep woods, with no planes or cars humming in the background. Just the wind in the trees, the cicadas, and later the sounds of all those night creatures.

When Harry died, he left that cabin to me in his will. He had stipulated that it be sold and the money used for my education. I convinced my parents to hang on to it, and I did return there a couple of times with Dad. But it wasn’t the same. How could it be?

Eventually, my parents did sell it to the owner of some adjacent property, because he promised not to develop it. I’ve returned there several times over the years, just to see if I could still find it. Though the cabin is slowly returning to nature, the gentleman has kept his word.

Given my later appreciation of the works of Henry David Thoreau, I have wished more than once that we could have kept the cabin. Regardless, Harry and the cabin are with me still.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Ha.

[2011]

A Note

I felt sorry for Mr. Sorensen, always away on business with three beautiful blonds at home. Jen was platinum, Abbie was strawberry, and yours varied from time to time.

I liked flirting with Abbie, telling her that she and I would go out when she was a little older if her sister didn’t mind.

I remember being alone in the house with Jen on night, and all I could think to do was teach her to how to play Stairway to Heaven on the piano until two in the morning. I thought I was being a gentleman; my mind rattled with her stories about her rapacious ex-boyfriend. If I could do it over, we’d play the piano naked.

Though I coveted your daughters, I think I loved you the most, and I think you knew. I was flattered that we were able to talk about anything, that I could tell you I was a virgin and you could tell me that you really shouldn’t have worn white. I was somehow honored that I could drop and join in your afternoon get-togethers with the neighborhood women. And grateful for your understanding when you found my friend Jeff and I parked in front of your house one night smelling of blackberry brandy and talking nonsense after Jen and I had broken up.

I remember coming by after school one afternoon to ask you to stop taking my side in the break-up, and your smiling remark that we should be careful lest the neighbors start calling you Mrs. Robinson.

I still think about what might have happened had I seen the movie.

[1994]

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Originally appeared in the Winter 1994 edition of Columbia Journal.

The Lost Detail

The heat is shimmering off the pavement. My friends and I are out for a ride on a sultry New Jersey summer afternoon in 1978. John, a childhood friend, is home on leave from the Navy. He has grown a beard. Now he and I and our friend George are cruising along North Dean Street in John’s maroon Chevy Impala, on our way to Palisade Avenue to find something to eat.

We sit three across in the front seat. The windows are rolled down, and the stereo is turned up to fight the noise of the rushing air. We’re listening to Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Jeff Beck. I’m in the middle, wearing my usual attire: T-shirt, skintight flared blue jeans, Frye boots. My one hint of individuality is a beat-up, floppy-brimmed fishing hat that had belonged to my favorite uncle. George is similarly dressed, leaning against the passenger door, thoroughly enjoying the music and the wind blowing through his almost shoulder-length blond hair.

As we approach downtown Englewood, we pass Depot Square Park (later renamed Veteran’s Memorial Park) to our right. The park, about two blocks long and half a block wide, is sandwiched between North Dean Street and the railroad tracks. It’s all lawn, tall old trees, and benches — a pleasant place to have lunch.

On this day, however, something looks very out of place.

There, on the south end, a block from Palisade Avenue, are something like fifteen or twenty soldiers milling about in brown uniforms with swastikas on their sleeves. John notices them first and nonchalantly says, “Hey look — Nazis.”

My eyes fix on them; I want to be sure of what I’m seeing. They’re Nazis, all right: neatly pressed brown shirts and slacks, polished jackboots, the infamous arm bands.

I’m stunned. My first thought is, These guys have a ton of nerve. Englewood has always been an ethnically diverse town. How is it that these guys are still standing?

My next thought is, This is too close to home. We lived in the next town, and I’d always believed that this sort of thing only happened in Georgia or Illinois, that most American Nazis lived down south or out west somewhere.

Now I’m incensed. I also completely forget that George is sitting next to me. Like a man possessed, I scramble over him and lean halfway out the passenger window of the Impala, holding my hat to my head, shouting at the top of my lungs.

I declare to the world that the Brownshirts are illegitimate children. I question their sexual orientation: not their gender preference, but their species preference. I proclaim my knowledge of Adolf Hitler’s previous occupation and genital peculiarity, and contend that his mother had been a dog.

In the midst of my tirade, I feel the car stop. Two people grab my arms and lift me out of the car. They’re Englewood police officers. One is a man with sandy hair, just over six feet tall. His partner is a short but muscular woman with brunette hair. Neither looks very happy.

They order me to put my hands against a storefront wall and spread my legs. The male officer frisks me. For reasons I still don’t understand, I tell him to “check my boots, just in case.” Behind me, I hear George explaining, “He’s just very emotional.”

When I’m finally allowed to turn around, the officers inform me that I’m in serious trouble, that I’m to be taken down to headquarters. I try to argue with them about allowing a Nazi rally to take place in their park. They say I have no right to shout obscenities and incite a riot.

At that moment, we are joined by a third officer, who grabs my arm and takes me aside.

“Are you Jewish?” he asks.

“No,” I say, “but my mom’s German. You have to be Jewish to hate Nazis?”
And I’m thinking, This guy ‘s black. He should be on my side.

He pulls me farther away from his partners — who seem bent on taking me in — and goes nose to nose with me, looking me right in the eyes.

“Listen,” he whispers, “they’re not really Nazis.”

“What do you mean? Just look at them. The uniforms.”

“No. They’re not Nazis. It’s a movie.”

“Come on . . .”

“It’s a Woody Allen movie.”

“Get outta here . . .”

The officer continues to look me in the eyes, slowly nodding his head up and down.

Then, as if it will actually help me, I smile at him and whisper, “I love Woody Allen.”

The officer is not amused. He tells me to give him a minute to talk to his partners, but says he can’t promise me anything.

He returns a few minutes later and tells us to just shut up, get in the car, and get out of town.

And through it all, John is somewhere between laughter and nervous collapse. He’s on leave from the Navy, but neglected to tell the Navy about it. A routine background check would have assured him a private escort back to Philadelphia.

P.S.: The Woody Allen movie turned out to me Manhattan. While there is a reference to a New Jersey Nazi rally in the film, the footage of the rally was apparently left on the cutting room floor.

[1992]

Originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the July 1992 edition of New Jersey Monthly.

A Lifetime in Bergenfield Belies Author’s Version

I JUST FINISHED reading “Teenage Wasteland,” a recently published book that attempts to examine the circumstances behind teen suicides like the ones in Bergenfield in 1987.

While the author, Donna Gaines, made some valid points concerning alienated youth and the skewed priorities of American culture, I disagreed with her less-than-flattering portrayal of Bergenfield, particularly the high school.

The author is a sociologist. I am not. She spent a month in Bergenfield researching a book. I have spent my life here.

As a student, I did not fit into any of the author’s pigeonholes of high school society. I was not a “burnout,” nor was I scholarship or honor society material. I was just an average student who graduated in the middle of his class.

The two copies of “Teenage Wasteland” at the Bergenfield Public Library seem to be on perpetual reserve. If you want to get in line, you can read the author’s version of Bergenfield High School.

This is my version.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that the noblest of all professions are nursing and teaching. Sad to say, many of us only come to realize this under unfortunate, and sometimes tragic, circumstances.

In the days following the Bergenfield fire that killed William McClain’s family this past spring, I witnessed the struggle of Bergenfield High’s students and faculty to cope with the loss of 16-year-old Bill McClain, a struggle compounded by the tragic death of another 16-year-old student less than a month before, Nakia Wright.

The day before the fire, Bergenfield’s renowned marching band had participated in New York’s welcome-home parade for the Persian Gulf troops. Billy played the French horn in the band. My sister, a senior, was in the color guard.

Sixteen years ago, I played trombone in the band.

So in covering the aftermath of the fire for a local weekly newspaper, I found myself conversing with teachers I had known when I was in school. What came through in these conversations was the love these teachers have for their students. A recurring theme in the conversations was family.

On the day of the fire, several Bergenfield alumni, people who had never met Billy McClain, came to the school to offer assistance, much in the same way relatives gather after the death of a family member.

I spent a good part of that evening talking on the phone with Gloria Pennell. She is married to Kent Pennell, the marching band’s director. She, too, had been in the Bergenfield High School marching band. She now spends a great deal of her time with the band, particularly the color guard.

Gloria Pennell and I reflected on our experiences, which we had taken for granted as students, and how people tend to take what she says about teachers’ sacrifices with a grain of salt because her husband is a teacher.

She spoke about the commitment of the faculty, about the countless extra hours spent by the art department to put on shows; by the athletic department during summer, weeknight, and weekend training; by the music department in extra rehearsals; by the clubs and organizations during their after-school activities; and by the teachers who make the effort for no reason other than they want to do it.

The Pennells consider the band their adopted children. The Saturday before the fire, they had attended the local Eagle Scout presentation, where Billy McClain was recognized for his achievements.

The Pennells have no children of their own, and, like many young couples, are sometimes questioned about it by well-meaning friends and relatives.

Gloria Pennell said that on such occasions, she just smiles and thinks to herself, “You couldn’t buy what we have.”

Claire Quirke, a senior in the band, agreed about the relationship.

“She is band mother,” Claire said. “And we are her children. All 90 of us.”

Frank Levy, the high school’s music director, had known Billy McClain for eight years. He concurred:

“I know these kids from Grade 4 on. Maybe we’re not all father and child, but at least we’re cousins.”

He said the support the faculty had given the students was reciprocal; he had found comfort in being able to talk about his feelings with his students.

Two days after the fire, the high school had its senior awards night. Principal Ross Medlar believed that it was important to resume a normal routine. Each department, as well as civic organizations, presented awards and scholarships to seniors. The auditorium stage was filled with teachers sweating beneath the klieg lights. I recognized every one of them.

An almost reverent lull fell over the audience as the math department teachers came to the podium. Billy McClain had been a math prodigy. Joyce DeSantis, the head of the department, announced the establishment of a scholarship in Billy’s name. The auditorium erupted with sustained, resounding applause.

Some time later, choir director Michael Benard presented a vocal music award to a student he affectionately referred to as “his son.” Faculty and students alike roared with knowing, appreciative laughter. Such are the relationships at Bergenfield High School.

I thought about the things these teachers had given me, lessons that were not in the texts, lessons that did not come out of their plan books but from their example.

I had learned tolerance. I had learned the value of an individual’s contribution to a group effort. I had learned commitment. I had learned compassion.

It was easy to take those things for granted as a student. It is also very easy to take them for granted as a voting member of the community.

I grew up with one of the so-called “burnouts” mentioned in “Teenage Wasteland.” To this day, I do not fully understand the reasons for his death in 1986, or for the suicides of the four teenagers in that Foster Village garage nine months later.

What I do understand is that children are a community’s greatest treasure.

And teachers are the children’s treasure.

[1991]

Originally published in the August 19, 1991 edition of The Record.