Sunday, November 20, 2016

*****In Search Of Lost Time… Then-With 1960s School Days In Mind

*****In Search Of Lost Time… Then-With 1960s School Days In Mind


From The Pen Of Bart Webber

Several years ago, maybe in 2007 or 2008 Sam Lowell, the locally well-known lawyer from the town of Carver about thirty miles south of Boston, wrote some small pieces about the old days in the town, the old days being for him the 1950s and 1960s, the time of the golden age of the automobile and relative abundance but also if mocking the ephemeral materialist nature of the times also the red scare Cold War night with its threats of some errant Russkie bomb landing of top of us. At that time the town was mainly a rural outpost, the usual Main Street and drive on through like many such places in outer America, where instead of the usual rural occupation of farming, truck or raising staple crops on fertile land,  the cranberry bogs, the marches and water pits, and boggers (as kids we called them “boogers” not knowing what the hell bogs were about although knew what nasty boogers were from the eternal kids picking their noses) held sway and dominated a fair part of town life, ran the town politics and determined the ethos, determined the ethos to the extent that was possible in post-World War II America where the older cultural norms were rapidly being replaced by a speedier and less homespun way of doing business.

In the teenage life line-up, the only one that was important in Sam’s world then, since he was not a low-life bogger and had no bogger roots he had gravitated to those whose families like his  that were connected with the shipbuilding industry about twenty miles up the road. So you would have seen Sam and his corner boys on any given Friday or Saturday night if not dated up holding up the wall in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner over on Main Street daring, with the exception of Jack Callahan the great school football running back and fourth generation bogger who hung with them because he thought they were “cool,” any of the bogger clan to do anything but go in and order food or play the jukebox.

(Seemingly every boy in town from junior high on, if not before, had his corner boys for protection against a dangerous world outside the corner, or something like that if you asked them. If you wanted an explanation more than that of self-preservation professional sociologists and cracker barrel philosophers of the time spent endless hours of their time analyzing that angst-driven night and could give you their take on the phenomenon although as usual they were about twelve steps behind  the curve and by the time they had caught up these guys were shedding their angst and alienation for Zen rock and roll, drugs, Nirvana and the Kama Sutra not necessarily in that  order.)

Sam had seen that small town Americana all change over his long association with the town, including a few terms as a town selectman, although the boggers were still there, still moaning about their collective water tax bills, and still a force on the board but the drift over the decades was for the town to become a bedroom community for the sprawling high tech industry running the Interstate corridor about ten miles away. Sam though hung up with some old age nostalgia twist wrote about the old neighborhood now still intact as if time had passed that hell’s little acre by (the new developments were created on abandoned bog lands to the benefit mainly of Myles Larson, the largest bogger around), largely still composed of the small tumbledown small single family homes with a patch of green like that he grew up and came of age on “the wrong side of the tracks” (along with three brothers all close in age in a five room shack, Sam had never, except in front of his parents, ever called it anything but that). Sam sighed one time to his old friend from that very neighborhood Bart Webber after they had put the dust of the old town behind them for a while on the hitchhike road west that the “acres” of the world will always be with us. Markin, in his “newer world” turn the old world upside down phase did not want to hear that, blocked it out when Sam would bring the idea up on the road. That said a lot about Markin, and about Sam as well.   

Wrote too about the old (painful, the painful being that the school drew the more prosperous new arrivals staring to come into town leaving the boggers over at John Alden Junior High and subjecting him to lots of taunts about his brother hand-me-down clothes, silly saran wrapped-brown lunch bag bologna sandwich lunches with no dessert, no twinkles, cupcakes, Jello or anything at all fruit even, stuff like that) days when he attended the then newly built Myles Standish Junior High School (such places are now almost universally called middle schools) where he and his fellow class- mates were the first to go through starting in seventh grade. In that piece he mentioned that he was not adverse, hell, he depended on “cribbing” words, phrases and sentences from many sources.

One such “crib” was appropriating the title of a six-volume saga by the French writer Marcel Proust for one of those sketches, the title used here In Search of Lost Time as well. He noted that an alternative translation of that work was Remembrances of Things Past which he felt did not do justice to what he, Sam, was trying to get a across. Sam had no problem, no known problem anyway, with remembering things from the past but he thought the idea of a search, of an active scouring of what had gone on in his callow youth (his term) was more appropriate to what he was thinking and feeling.       

Prior to writing those pieces Sam had contacted through the marvels of modern technology, through the Internet, Google and Facebook a number of the surviving members of that Myles Standish Class of 1962 to get their take on what they remembered, what search that they might be interested in undertaking to “understand what the hell happened back then and why” (his expression, okay). He got a number of responses, the unusual stuff that people who have not seen each for a long time, since the old days as school and so are inclined to put up a “front.” To show that the trajectory toward state prison or whore-houses which Miss Winot or one of them had predicted was to be their fate had been put behind them long ago, so endlessly going on and on about beautiful houses in beautiful neighborhoods putting paid to the dust of the dingy old town, what they had done with their lives in resume form, endless prattle about grandchildren (Sam admitted to a certain inclination that way himself so he was more forgiving on that issue) and so forth who also once Sam brought the matter up wanted to think back to those days.

One of those classmates, Melinda Loring, whom Sam in high school although not in junior high had something of a “crush” on but so did a lot of other guys, after they had sent some e-mail traffic to each other, sent him via that same method (oh beautiful technology on some things) a copy of a booklet that had been put out by the Myles Standish school administrators in 1987 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the school. Sam thoughtfully (his term) looked through the booklet and when he came upon the page shown above where an art class and a music class were pictured he discovered that one of the students in the art class photograph was of him.        

That set off a train of memories about how in those days, days by the way when the community freely offered every student a chance to take art in school and outside as well unlike today when he had been recently informed that due to school budget cuts art is no longer offered to each student in school but is tied to some cumbersome Saturday morning classes at the out-of-the-way community center, he was encouraged in his pursuit of artistic expression. In seventh grade after noticing some seascapes that he had done in a crude quasi-impressionist style like the French painter Monet whose work he had seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where he and his brother Kenny had done a whirlwind tour of the place in about two hours going there mainly to see the Egyptian exhibits but stopping at the French Impressionists for some kindred reason Mrs. Robert’s encouraged him to become an artist, thought he had some talent, enough to carry into an art school if he worked at it hard enough. Later at Carver High his junior and senior year art teacher Mr. Henry thought the same thing after he had done some less crude and less imitative semi-Impressionist-like rural scenes from the bogs around town and some quite good Abstract Expressionist work when he discovered the work of Jackson Pollock. He was prepared to recommend Sam to his alma mater, the Massachusetts School of Art in the Back Bay of Boston.

Art for Sam had always been a way for him to express what he could not put in words, could not easily put in words anyway and he was always crazy to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see some artwork by real professionals, especially in high school the abstract expressionists that he was visually drawn to (and would leave after viewing such modern masterpieces feeling like he at best would always be an inspired amateur since he did not have the vision to break off from what he already had seen and imitated, at least that is what he thought then). Part of the appeal of art was the kind of bohemian lifestyle he imagined they led, having read a few things in the encyclopedia about various artists like Gauguin and Van Gogh and that enflamed a kid who was stuck in a three boys to one bedroom shack of a house down in the wrong side of the tracks and part was the idea of breaking out, breaking out from the traditional art that you would see on people’s walls, stuff used as decoration. His idea was to create something that someone would buy and not put on the walls for decoration by maybe highlight in a room of its own as the next new thing in art. Those were on his better days, days when he had not seen museum pieces for a while and began to believe once he had the basics down he could take off from what Picasso, Miro, Pollack, Rivers, Dove and the others were trying to do. Those were the days when he had painted a weird scene in watercolor, a medium always hard for him to work in, that was something like a breakaway from a Georgia O’Keefe Southwest mountain painting which Mr. Henry wanted him to enter into the Art for Art’s Sake competition the Boston Globe was sponsoring and he won third prize, his best effort ever.  

The big reason that Sam did not pursue that art career had a lot to do with coming up “from hunger,” coming up the hard way. When he broached the subject to his parents after he won the prize (and had already been accepted in a local college based on his high SAT score in History), mainly his mother, Delores, lowered the boom, vigorously emphasized the hard life of the average artist, and old chestnut about the million failed artists for every Picasso, and told him that a manly profession like a teacher was better for a boy who had come up from the dust of society. (“Manly” her term, although she did not mean the practice of law which he had not aspired to at the time except that his cranky old grandfather would keep bugging him to be a lawyer after he had recited the Gettysburg Address as part of a school ceremony honoring Abraham Lincoln on the centenary of that event, but like all second-generation Irish mothers in that town when they got their tongues wagging some nice white collar civil service job to support a nice wife, nice three children and a nice white picket fenced house outside the “acre,” such were motherly dreams).

Sam wondered about that long ago mother’s sensible remark after seeing the photograph, after seeing that twinkle in his eye as he was creating something with his hands, some painting because outside the brush he was not very mechanically-inclined. Wondered about the fact that after a lifetime of working the manly profession of the practice of the law all he could conclude was that there were a million good lawyers (and he included himself in that category without any undue modesty he thought) but far fewer good artists and maybe he could have at least had his fifteen minutes of fame in that field. He might not have caught he Pop Art/Op Art waves that were carrying art forward then but maybe being around such artists would have made him push his personal envelope. He resolved to search for some old artwork stored he did not know where, maybe still in the attic of the old family house which after his parents passed on his unmarried older brother, Seamus, took over, the only one who didn’t flee the place like it was the plague, to see if that path would have made sense.  

Sam had had to laugh after looking at the other photograph, the one of the music room, where he spotted his old friend Ralph Morse who went on in the 1960s to some small fame in the Greater Boston area as a member of the rock group The Rockin’ Ramrods. Actually a bit more than small fame since they had fronted for the Stones when they came to the Boston area a few years later and had had a couple of local hits that went number one on the WMEX hot rock charts. Many an after concert party in Boston or down at the Surf Ballroom in Hull where they were a fixture and were “discovered” by Alex Ginsberg from WMEX one night when he was there because his girlfriend had heard about the band from a woman she worked with and had bugged Alex to go hear them and he pushed them forward after that found Ralph and Sam drunk as skunks talking about the old days when rock and roll music was not even let into the Morse household (his parents were Evangelicals and hated “the devil’s music”). Hell barely tolerated in the pious Catholic Lowell household (a truce declared when Sam’s parents purchased a transistor radio for him one Christmas at the Radio Shack so they could not hear the music). Ralph had eventually once the Ramrods broke up as such bands do when there are personal differences or in Ralph’s case when he wanted to try his luck as solo lead singer headed west to seek his fame and fortune but kind of fell off the face of the earth in the early 1970s out in Oregon and nobody even with today’s technology, Internet/Facebook and whatever else could help track somebody down, somebody who was not hiding under the radar anyway, has been able to find out his whereabouts, if any.

That Ralph look too set off a train of memories about how in those days, days by the way when the community freely offered every student a chance to take music in school and outside as well like with art classes unlike today when he had been informed recently that due to school budget cuts music is no longer offered to each student but is also tied to some cumbersome Saturday morning classes at the out-of-the-way community center. However unlike with his art teachers Mr. Dasher the slap-dash music teacher often went out of his way to tell Sam to keep his voice down since it was gravelly, and off-key to boot.

At the time Sam did not think much about it, did not feel bad about having no musical sense. Later though once he heard folk music, the blues and some other roots music he felt bad that Mister Dasher had put a damper on his musical sensibilities. (Mister Dasher who had a band of his own, you know a swing band, playing stuff for people like his parents from the big band era, Benny Goodman, Count this, Duke that to supplement his meager teacher’s pay was something of a flashy dresser and was taunted by the kids in class, taunted by Sam right along with the others as Mister Dasher, the Nighttime Flasher. In that innocent age nobody thought anything of it except kids caught up in the nation-wide “rhyming simon” craze but today no question such a moniker would bring heaven’s own wrath down on his poor head, Jesus.) Not that he would have gone on to some career like Ralph, at least Ralph had his fifteen minutes of fame, got Mick and the boys autographs and had a few of their leftover party girls but he would have avoided that life-long habit of singing low, singing in the shower, singing up in the isolated third floor of his current home where no one, including his longtime companion, Laura Perkins a woman with a professional grade voice that would make the angels weep for their inadequacies, would hear him. The search for memory goes on….  


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