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]

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.