Well before I was born -- even before my mother came into the picture -- my father saw an article in LIFE magazine that made an impact on him. It was about a photographer who made sure he had a photo taken of him with his daughter, in the same place, every year on her birthday. My father liked this idea so much, he vowed that if/when he had a child, he would take on this tradition. And so we have. This blog explores our history, as I write his memoir and a history of the family farm near Allentown, now in a developer's hands.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Blog EXTRA: Daddy’s Handkerchiefs

By Corinne H. Smith

     As long as I can remember, my father has used white square cotton handkerchiefs.  He always has one tucked into the right rear pocket of his pants.  He takes it out regularly throughout the day to blow his nose – or rather, to give a good honk into it.  I think he hits a low D or E, every time.

     When I was growing up, and I “helped” my mother do the laundry, I first handled my father’s handkerchiefs myself.  Each one is a simple 16-inch square that we ironed and folded into a tidy four-inch pile.  That’s how it would go into his pocket each morning.

     The trouble is that once he uses one, it’s not the same.  He unfolds it, blows, and then balls up the material and jams it back into his pocket.  Since this happens multiple times during the day, it’s inevitable that the whole handkerchief doesn’t make it back into the tight slot.  Part of it is usually hanging out of his pocket.  Like the ear of a bunny.  Or a goat.

     Of course, we enabled this practice when we always put a fresh pack of white handkerchiefs under the Christmas tree for him each December.  And now that I think of it, why on earth did we waste time and steam and effort to iron these things, back in the day?  I guess it was just because it was the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that’s what was expected of us womenfolk.  To present a perfectly flat and straight handkerchief to be placed in a man’s pocket, ready for the first blow. Yikes.

     Mom used to get angry and somewhat embarrassed whenever Daddy would get up to play a piccolo solo at a band concert.  There he would be, standing at the edge of the stage and facing the audience, with part of his white handkerchief waving from the back pocket of his black dress pants.  My mother would shake her head and groan.  I guess she thought my father’s slightly disheveled appearance would cast a bad light on her as well.  I’m not sure it did.  I don’t know how many other people even looked back there when he walked forward.  When he turned around and returned to the flute section, well yes, it may have been obvious then.  Like a flag at half mast.

Daddy & Edna enjoying the annual church picnic, Summer 2012.  Note the handkerchief sticking out of his pocket.  My mother would have been appalled that someone took this photo.  And that I'm posting it online, for all the world to see.  Sorry, Mom!
     Now that my father and I are living together again, I’ve gotten used to seeing the white cotton squares in the laundry basket.  I wash them and fold them, but I sure don’t iron them.  What would be the point?  They’re going to get messy as soon as he uses them anyway.  And I’ve also learned that he uses more than one during the course of the day, even though he goes through boxes of Kleenex rather quickly, too.  He has a whole stack of handkerchiefs in one dresser drawer.  At last count, there were about two dozen in there.  The tally sometimes diminishes after the laundry cycle, though.  If one doesn’t come entirely clean from a standard washing, then it goes into the trash instead of into his room.  Maybe someday soon we’ll actually have to buy more.

     I finally asked him why he uses these white cotton squares.  “I have always carried a handkerchief in my back pocket,” he said.  He doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t have one.  He doesn’t remember the day that he first got one.  “Doesn’t a man always have a handkerchief in his back pocket?” he replied, then answered his own question.  “I thought they did.”  Yes, Daddy. Evidently, they still do.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

1975: Henry David Thoreau’s Influence Begins

By Corinne H. Smith

1975:  I turned eighteen years old.  I was a freshman at Clarion State College in Clarion, Penna.  Daddy was 46, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna.  Mom worked as a nurse at a local clinic.  We lived on Dale Avenue in West Hempfield Township.  The #1 popular song on the radio on my eighteenth birthday was “That’s the Way (I Like It)” by KC and the Sunshine Band.  Mom snapped this photograph.

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.  
The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones.     
 ~ Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden

     During my sophomore year (1972-1973) at Hempfield High School, we were assigned to read the essay “Civil Disobedience” in Harold Sachwald’s English class.  It’s not too strong a statement to say that this experience changed the course of my life.  I still remember our teacher’s animation in sharing the classic tale of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s visit to the jail cell of Henry David Thoreau, who was spending the night under arrest for non-payment of the Massachusetts poll tax. 

     “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Waldo supposedly quipped. 

     “Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Henry is said to have answered. 

     It’s a fabricated scene that many an English teacher has used to enliven the analysis of Thoreau’s essay.  And in Mr. Sachwald’s classroom back then, it grabbed me.  (Today I know better.  Emerson didn’t visit Thoreau in jail, and this exchange never happened.  It’s more likely that when the two men next chatted, Waldo asked his protégé why he had failed to pay the tax and had chosen instead to serve his time in jail.  And Henry replied, “Why did you not?”  Which I think is still a good story with a good message.) 

     I was an only child who felt that she was under the daily scrutiny of a domineering mother.  Thoreau’s spirit of independence and inclination toward non-violent protest immediately resonated with me.  “The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right,” Henry wrote.  Wow.  I sure wanted to drink more water from this well.

     We learned enough details about Mr. Thoreau that I knew I wanted to keep this relationship going.  I had to read Walden next.  I knew it would affirm not only my yearning for independence but also my strong connection with Nature.  So during my junior year, I checked out the copy from our school library.  It was several inches thick, had a leather spine, and was probably from the 1930s or 1940s. It had a leafy decoration on the cover and a few nice engravings that illustrated each chapter.  But I couldn’t quite get into it. The opening section on “Economy” had me stymied.  I still sensed that the contents would be important to me, so I kept renewing it and kept hoping that I would someday understand it.  I carried the book around for months and months.  Finally, I returned it to the library, heavily fingerprinted, but left unread.

     Without further prompting from Henry, however, I was already starting to think and to act like a non-conformist.  I had done some personal introspection and contemplation.  I had penned my own philosophy of life document.  And when it came time to create my senior year class schedule, I abandoned the academic track.  I knew I’d never be able to handle the prescribed regimen:  two periods daily of a Humanities course that required tons of reading; Calculus; Probability & Statistics; Physics.  Add Band and Hempfield Singers, and there was scarcely room to breathe.  Are you kidding me?  I had already applied for admission to Clarion State College.  When I got accepted during the last week of our junior year, I was the first person in our class to get a college acceptance letter.  I was validated.  I could take whatever I wanted for my last two semesters at Hempfield High School.  I loaded up on literature courses and signed up for Creative Writing. 

     In the spring of 1975, my elective American literature class included the reading of Walden.  This was a class for which I earned no recorded grade and only half of one academic credit.  I bought my own paperback -- ironically enough, at Walden Books in the Park City Mall -- so that I would be free to underline the good parts.  I even liked the way this edition looked, with its funky and colorful 1960s cover showing a solitary individual, sitting under a tree, gazing across a body of water.  I paid 75 cents for it.  I wanted to be that person.

My first copy of Walden, along with one of the used copies I always seem to find and buy.

     I’ll admit that it took the intervention of teacher Thomas McVey for me to finally begin to digest Thoreau’s prose.  Suddenly nearly every page contained at least one nugget that I felt was inspirational and worth saving: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” for instance; “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” for another.  I underlined them all with my see-through blue Bic pen.  These were powerful words for a teenager to consider, especially one who was on the verge of carving out her own place in society.  I took the philosophy of Walden to heart.  I became hooked on Henry for life.

     Simultaneously, I realized that what I was reading in Walden echoed what I was listening to on Rocky Mountain High and on my other John Denver albums.  In addition to the love of nature and to the power of the individual, there were similarities in the timing of coming of age.  John Denver sang that he had found his spiritual home in Aspen, where he had been “born in the summer of his 27th year.”  Coincidentally, Henry David Thoreau was 27 years old when he moved to his house at Walden Pond.  He would turn 28 eight days later.  But still.  How could I ignore the parallel?

     In fact, 1975 was probably the year I made a list of Walden passages and John Denver lyrics and analyzed their agreement in thought.  I wish I still had this list.  I never did learn if John Denver ever read any of Thoreau’s writings.  This was a question I meant to ask him in person, decades later.

     In August 1975, I headed off to Clarion State College to major in library science and German.  The town of Clarion lay in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, across the mountains and five hours away from home.  Yay.

      I quickly looked up Henry David Thoreau in the card catalog at the Carlson Library.  When I first found the shelves where his books were located, I’m sure my jaw dropped.  There sat a 20-volume set of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, bound in sturdy library buckram.  I hadn’t known that such a thing existed.  I decided that I wasn’t really interested in the first six volumes, which consisted of Walden and the rest of the book-length travel narratives.  I figured I could read them anytime, some day in the future.  Instead, it was the 14 individual volumes of his journal that intrigued me.  Surely the raw material here would yield the kind of literary gems and life lessons I had found in Walden.  I checked out the first one and began copying my favorite passages on lined notebook paper, gathering the pages together to save for personal reference.  After all, I would never be able to afford to have my own copies of these books.

     And that’s how it went.  I checked out the journal volumes, one by one, over the course of my four years as an undergrad.  On occasion I carried them outside, to read in a more peaceful and natural environment than my dorm room offered:  like the cemetery on Second Avenue, at the western end of the town of Clarion.  My second college roommate, Susan Weinheimer (now Hart), knew that I was working my way through the series.  She found the Thoreau shelf in the library and quietly put a few little yellow sticky notes in the journal volumes that remained untouched.  I laughed whenever I came upon them in my reading.  Who knows?  A few of her notes may still be left there, if she put them in books that I had already finished.

     Encounters and inspirations from Thoreau have continued to resurface throughout my lifetime.  But reading Walden and turning to his journal in 1975 are events that set the stage for what was to come.  And yes, I still have the sheaf of blue-lined notebook pages that contain all of the vital quotes I culled from the journals I read at Clarion.  I refer to them from time to time … even though I now own a two-volume condensed set of Thoreau’s journals.

The old notebook sits atop the two-volume Dover Publications set that has since come my way.

 [Portions of this post and its general contents previously appeared in three sources:  My book, Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey (Green Frigate Books, 2012); “A Thoreau-ly Told Story” in Clarion … and Beyond: Clarion University News for Alumni and Friends, April 2013; and “MY Walden,” a post for The Roost, Thoreau Farm: Birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, August 16, 2013.]

Sunday, December 1, 2013

1974: The Mystery of the Stolen English Test

By Corinne H. Smith

1974:  I turned seventeen years old.  I was in twelfth grade at Hempfield High School.  Daddy was 45, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna.  Mom worked as a nurse at a local clinic.  We lived on Dale Avenue in West Hempfield Township.  The #1 popular song on the radio on my seventeenth birthday was “Whatever GetsYou Thru the Night” by John Lennon with the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band.  Mom snapped this photograph.

Don't laugh.  It was the 1970s.  We blended in.

[In order to protect the identities of the very real people in this story, I use letters here to stand for individuals.  Names of five boys/men are represented by letters from the beginning of the alphabet, A-E.  Names of six girls/women come from letters from the end of the alphabet, Z-U.  The two adult educators are identified by their real initials, for my classmates will recognize them anyway.  And it should be emphasized that I can report on these details only from my own view of them.  CHS]

     The Spring of 1974 marked the second semester of my junior year at Hempfield High School.  My least favorite class then was English literature with Mrs. K.  She was the kind of teacher who expected and gave points for class participation.  I was an introverted adolescent who was loathe to offer my opinions and interpretations (and often, seemingly incorrect ones) in public.  She forced us to read and analyze Hamlet and Samuel Pepys’ diary and “That’s My Last Duchess on the Wall,” and I just didn’t get any of it.  I was a C student in her class, and I wasn’t alone.  Mrs. K. was a hot topic amongst us.  She taught two academic sections of English lit, so she had an impact on at least 50 of the 400 kids who made up the HHS Class of 1975.

     One of those 50 was Z, who sat next to me in homeroom.  To make idle chit-chat one day, I asked her what she thought of a recent English test.  Our class had taken the test one day before hers had.  When I asked Z for her impression the following morning, her eyes got huge.  “Oh, Corinne,” she said, “Some people had copies of the test ahead of time!”  We looked at each other in naïve horror.  I know my jaw dropped to the floor.  How could such a thing have happened?  Neither one of us would have ever thought of cheating.  We weren’t sure we knew anyone who would.  But someone must have done the unthinkable.  This was certainly a disturbing development.

     When our class walked into Mrs. K.’s room that morning, the woman was not her usual chatty, irritating self:  barking out page numbers or handing back corrected and sarcasm-laden assignment notes.  She waited until everyone was seated; then she picked up a piece of chalk and wrote seven digits on the blackboard.  A dash turned them into a phone number.  She laid the stick of chalk back in the tray.  “Something has happened,” she said quietly.  And she proceeded to launch into a long and rambling lecture, never quite nailing down the exact topic of her composed but passionate tirade.  “If you know what I’m talking about,” she said finally, “I would like you to call me at home” – she pointed to the numbers on the board – “and provide whatever information you can.  If you don’t know what I’m referring to, then you have nothing to worry about.”  We stared at our desktops or looked around the room in confusion.  For a teacher to give students her home phone number was unheard of.  This was huge, whatever it was.  I could feel my heart pounding double- and triple-time.  My worst nightmare was being accused of doing something I had not done and for which I could not prove my innocence.  Was just knowing what Z had told me enough to put me in the slammer?  I was shaking in my 4-inch cork-soled shoes.

     A formal investigation was launched.  Someone had stolen the test and/or its answer sheet from Mrs. K.’s desk, and that someone would be found and punished.  One by one, selected members of my class were called down to the principal’s office over the course of the next few days.  I had never personally crossed paths with Mr. H., our principal.  But I was terrified that he might confuse me with somebody else and ask me questions under a bright and beady light, and I would cave in and sign a confession to an act I never committed.  I used to love going to school.  Now I got a queasy stomach each time I boarded the bus.

     Eventually the official verdict came down from the authorities.  The culprit was A, they said.  He was suspended for a week and was made ineligible for early admission into the National Honor Society.  But the word throughout the hallowed halls of Hempy High was that A was not the test-stealer at all.  I wasn’t part of the in-crowd and so could not learn more details then.  While I was relieved that I had never been questioned, I always felt as if the real thief could still be walking amongst us, undetected and unpunished.  Maybe it was even someone I knew.

     Decades passed.  One day in the 2000s, I was visiting with Y, a classmate I hadn’t seen in at least 20 years.  She had occupied the desk next to mine in Mrs. K.’s English class during our junior year.  Loving always to dwell on the past, I asked her the big question:  Did she know who stole Mrs. K.’s test back then?  I was hoping that she somehow had the key to the crime, even though she wasn’t part of the in-crowd then, either.

     Unfortunately and unbelievably, Y didn’t know what I was talking about.  She didn’t recall anything about a stolen test, Mrs. K.’s plea for information, or A’s indictment.  All she remembered about that class was that B sat behind her and constantly jiggled a nervous foot against her chair the entire time.  What a let down!  I thought she might be able to give me at least a leading clue or a list of possible perps.  After all, she had once practiced as an attorney.

     But for the next few days, I kept thinking about the incident.  If A didn’t take the test, then who did?  Now that Hempfield had published an alumni directory, I had contact information for most of my classmates.  If I asked the right people the right questions, I might be able to solve this decades-old puzzle.  I didn’t read all those mystery novels and watch Murder, She Wrote and Columbo reruns for nothing.

     In those days just before Facebook’s popularity, I could best use only e-mail to my advantage.  I sent a message to C, a classmate who lived a few hours away from me, and whom I ran into in person on occasion.  C’s reply to my question was eerie, for his reaction mirrored mine.  Without my prompting, he wrote that he too remembered Mrs. K.’s lecture vividly, as well as the fact that she had written her phone number on the board.  He too hadn’t initially understood the reason for her behavior; and later, he too had been worried about being called to the office.  He hadn’t been interrogated either, and he didn’t know who had really stolen the English test.  When it was announced that A had been suspended, C was disappointed because they were friends who performed in the same rock band.  But C never asked A about the issue later, and he had lost touch with our classmate over time.

     A, I thought.  I could e-mail A, the supposed thief.  But we hadn’t been friends back in school.  What was I supposed to say?  Hey, how are ya, it’s been a long time, who really stole that test when we were in eleventh grade?  I actually formulated a polite message to that effect, but the e-mail was rejected.  A could no longer be found at the e-mail address listed for him in the alumni directory.  His name didn’t come up quickly in an online search, either.  So I couldn’t go to the source.  I’d have to keep asking others to sift through their memory banks.

     D was a classmate whose birthday was near mine.  We still exchanged birthday cards and Christmas letters.  But when I sent him a message, it bounced back from a full e-mail box.  Darn.

     X, who was my lab partner when we were in biology in tenth grade, wasn’t much help.  “A did it,” she quickly replied in an e-mail of her own.  “He got caught and couldn’t get into NHS until we were seniors because of it.”   So X believed the official story.  Too bad.  I hadn’t pegged her as a party-line kind of gal.

     I used to cross professional paths with W from time to time, over the years.  She had been involved in a lot of school activities and had served as one of our class officers.  I thought she might be a good source for the truth.  “I always thought C did it,” she wrote.  “That’s what I told Mrs. K. when she called me on the phone.  You might want to ask V.  Mrs. K. called her at home, too.”

     This was indeed interesting and unsettling information.  First of all, C didn’t know how close he had come to implication.  And secondly, Mrs. K. had used V and W as informants.  Granted, they were both serious and trustworthy students back then.  But for a teacher to call her students at home?  This was a borderline surreal revelation for me.  Both for my high school days, and even for now.

     Although W had given me a lead, I began to question my sanity over this issue.  Why did I care, so many years later, and why was I contacting people out of the blue about something that happened in 1974?  I had played my closest cards and had come up empty.  Maybe it was time to stop the madness before the rumor spread that I was crazy-gone-nuts.  I stopped my e-mail investigation and let the matter lie.

     In 2010, at our 35th high school class reunion, I spied V and her husband E, both of whom had been in my ill-fated junior English class.  I sauntered over to them; and above the din generated by the disc jockey at the other end of the room, I leaned in to V’s ear and yelled:  “I have a question.  Who stole Mrs. K.’s test back when we were in eleventh grade?”

     V nodded, as if she had heard of my investigation and had been expecting my query.  “U,” she shouted back at me.  “But don’t say anything.  She has a really good job.”  

     I shook my head in disbelief.  First of all, up to that point, I had been assuming that the test thief had been male.  This was a gender bias on my part, I guess.  U and I had been members of another organization together, and we had participated in meetings and events with one another.  We weren’t close friends, but we were not strangers.  Secondly:  If U once slipped a piece of paper from a teacher’s desk into her own notebook back in 1974, why should it matter to anyone, anymore?  It shouldn’t.  But as we well know, various celebrities and individuals in public service have been brought down by such similarly tame circumstances.  Or less.

     No, I didn’t ask U if she did it.  She wasn’t at the reunion that weekend.  And I have never contacted her to pose the question.  I hold no grudge against her.  But who knows?  Someday I may find myself traveling in her part of the country; and I’ll just happen to stop in and ask her what she remembers about having Mrs. K. for English.  And I’ll get her side of the story.

     Why has this episode stayed with me over the years?  I guess it’s because of its sense of injustice.  An innocent person was accused, found guilty, and punished; and all along the perpetrator went free and unnoticed.  To a naive teenager, this was a scary situation and a lesson learned.  If this could happen within the protected sanctuary of our then-safe school building, what kind of rules could be enacted in the world beyond those walls?
Mementos from those good old days

Thursday, November 21, 2013

1973: John Denver & Rocky Mountain High

By Corinne H. Smith

1973:  I turned sixteen years old, and my birthday fell on Thanksgiving.  I was in eleventh grade at Hempfield High School.  Daddy was 44, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna.  Mom worked as a nurse at a local clinic.  We lived on Dale Avenue in West Hempfield Township.  The #1 popular song on my sixteenth birthday was “Keep On Truckin” by Eddie Kendricks.  Mom snapped this photograph.


     If I were the kind of person who kept a daily diary, I might be able to pinpoint the exact moment when I first became aware of John Denver and his music.  As it is, in retrospect, I can only say that by the time of my 16th birthday in 1973, I was becoming fully immersed.  And the man and his songs were already changing the path of my life.

     By now I knew “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”  It had been a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary back in 1969.  In Girl Scouts, we sang this song around the campfire.  (While we thought wistfully about future possibilities with boys, in their noticeable absence, I suppose. Sigh.)  And of course I liked “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which came out during the summer of 1971.  But it was the song “Rocky Mountain High” and its title album that turned me into a devotee.  Not only of John Denver, but also of the kind of inspiration found in Nature, of the importance of environmental awareness, of the ability to form a strong sense of place, and of the power of music.  It’s only now that I understand how captivated I was back then … and only now do I realize how much I still admire the words and the music and the man.

     The album was released in September 1972.  By January 1973, the title song, “Rocky Mountain High,” appeared regularly on the radio.  It spent three months in the Top 40 and reached as high as #9 on the chart.  I thought it should have been #1. 

     The song caught my attention in the first two measures of the introduction.  The melodic opening guitar riff reached out to me.  It reached into me.  For the next five minutes, I was somewhere else.  The combination of the music and the lyrics affected me physically and emotionally more than any other song previously had.  John was singing about a place -- the Rocky Mountains of Colorado -- that seemed exotic to me:  something perfect, something unattainable, something preserved and spectacular, and one that I’d probably never see for myself.  Even though I sat in an eastern suburb, I could relate to the image he painted.  I liked spending time in Nature, too.  When I was younger, I entertained myself by exploring the trees and bushes in our big backyard.  I used to climb one of our sugar maple trees and sit up in it for hours.  I became a Brownie, and then a Girl Scout. Our troops hiked and camped in wild areas around our little eastern hills.  

     I could feel myself drawn not only toward Nature in general, but also to environmental awareness.  The first Earth Day had happened in 1970, and its intentions seemed right to me.  I was just beginning to understand the ramifications of having “more people, more scars upon the land.”  Even my recent rebellion against organized religion could find a confirmation in "Rocky Mountain High."  When John said that he could "talk to God and listen to the casual reply,” he proved to me that it was acceptable to find spirituality in Nature and not in a church pew.  Amen, Brother!  And wouldn’t it indeed be a terrific feeling to come “home” to a place you’d never been before?  Didn’t we all want to find that special place on the planet that we could claim as our own, where we felt the most comfortable?  These were among the messages that John’s song sent to me.  And they hit me just as I was beginning to develop my own philosophy of life, and just as I was beginning to determine where my own place might be.  It was the right song to hear at the right time.   (Click here, to hear it.) 

The Rocky Mountain High album.  The introvert in me longed to stand in the middle of a roaring river like this one.

     I bought the Rocky Mountain High album.  I played it on the stereo in the media console that stands behind my father and me in our birthday pictures (see above).  I sat in the living room and listened to it.  Each song had something to say to me.  It was the perfect musical experience.  The record began with the title song, which naturally entranced me.  Then John’s cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son” continued to feed the love of Nature.  John Prine’s “Paradise” was an environmental warning from the coal mining regions of Kentucky:  another place I had never seen and thought I never would.  But it didn’t seem too far away.  “For Baby (For Bobbie).” “Darcy Farrow,” and “Prisoners” were all variations on the theme of love.  “Prisoners” had the added benefit of being a powerful anti-war protest.  This was 1973, and the United States had pulled out of Vietnam, but the fighting was not yet over. “Prisoners” was one of the songs of the day that influenced me to write something similar that summer, a song called “Erica.”  It was the first song I wrote on and for the guitar.

     The second side of the Rocky Mountain High album -- yes, I got up from the couch, and I turned the record over -- began with another love song, “Goodbye Again.”  It was very much like “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” though the plea sounded a bit more mournful this time, more final.  It would prove to be just as campfire-worthy, though.

     The rest of the album was a five-part “Season Suite,” consisting of melodies for “Summer,” “Fall,” “Winter,” “Late Winter, Early Spring (When Everybody Goes to Mexico),” and “Spring.”  When I first glanced over the lyrics printed on the album cover, I figured that each song would be a playful summary of the season, a celebration of Nature.  And basically, they all were.  But I was surprised to be just as affected by two of these little tunes as I was by “Rocky Mountain High.”  If not more.

     “Summer” came first.  (You can hear it here.)  The verses were okay, they were fine.  It was the chorus that hit me.

And oh I love the life within me
I feel a part of everything I see
And oh I love the life around me
A part of everything is here in me

This personal connection with Nature resounded so much with me again that it was almost overwhelming, staggering.  I agreed with these words.  I believed in them wholeheartedly.  In that moment, I was a part of everything.  And it was not too strong a statement to say that I knew instantly that I wanted to use this philosophy as a foundation for my life.  Wasn’t this the way we were all supposed to think and feel?  We were all related.  We were all one.  Of course!  My eyes had been opened.  Wow.
     “Fall” and “Winter” were good tunes, too.  “Late Winter, Early Spring” was an exquisite and soothing instrumental.  Then it was time for the last song on the album, “Spring.”  Musically it followed the same melody and chorus as “Summer,” but some of the lyrics had changed.  Even the chorus was different, when it first came around again.  (You can hear the song here.)  Now it was:

Do you care what’s happening around you?
Do your senses know the changes when they come?
Can you see yourself reflected in the seasons?
Can you understand the need to carry on?

Suddenly the close connection with Nature had been amplified with the responsibility of environmental awareness.  I was even more overwhelmed.  It seemed as though my own nervous system could not contain all of the sensations that these words, these thoughts, stirred up in me.  I was a part of everything.  I did care.  I did understand.  Why didn’t everybody else get it?

     By the end of “Spring,” the chorus returned to the familiar one from “Summer.”  The Rocky Mountain High album spun to a close with its last lingering line, repeated three times for emphasis: “A part of everything is here in me.  A part of everything is here in me.  A part of every thing is here in me.”  Oh.  My.  God. 

     Whenever I played Rocky Mountain High on our living room stereo, I could not anticipate how much John Denver and his music would impact me over the course of my lifetime.  I only knew that at those very moments, he said everything I was thinking and feeling.  I’d never felt more in tune (a pun, but a true one) with a voice, a melody, and a lyric.  I didn’t realize that John Denver was quietly becoming a mentor to me.  I could not predict where this tenuous thread would lead.

     Throughout the rest of the 1970s and the 1980s, I was a devoted fan.  Eventually, I bought every John Denver album released in the United States during his lifetime.  Most were on vinyl; some were on cassette; very few came in CD format.  (And I still have them all.)  I learned how to play the guitar and how to specifically play a number of his songs.  I kept a scrapbook of John Denver articles torn carefully from newspapers and magazines.  I got wire-rimmed glasses.  I asked salon stylists to cut my hair to look like John’s, but it never worked quite right for me.  His strands were straight, and mine had too many natural waves.

     (Someday you learn that you don’t have to imitate your heroes in each and every way.  You can pick and choose what works for you, and dismiss the other stuff.)

     To meet an assignment in Inez Baker’s “Locally Produced Materials” class during our second semester at Clarion in 1976, my college roommate Marge Berbach (now Shaffer) and I created a slide show production showing the beauty and the fun side of snowfall.  We used “Late Winter, Early Spring” and “Winter” from “Season Suite” as our background music to project snowy scenes to our audience.  Somehow I’d talked Marge into this concept.  It combined two of my personal loves, snow and the Rocky Mountain High album.  (Thanks for going along with this scheme, Marge.)

I joined several John Denver fan clubs.  I subscribed to their newsletters and corresponded with other members through long handwritten letters sent in the mail.  Some of these people are still my friends, after all of these years.

     I saw John Denver ten times in concert, from 1980-1996.  My scrapbook grew into a box filled additionally with photographs and posters and concert programs and ticket stubs.  As a librarian, I had access to any number of reference sources.  So I found even more articles from obscure periodicals on microfilm and through interlibrary loan.  The box contents grew to overflowing. 

My box of John Denver articles and memorabilia, which until this week, had been taped shut for the last 10 years.

In reclaiming myself after divorce in 1991, I decided it was time to rededicate myself to Nature, to environmental causes, and really, to John Denver.  I joined his environmental organization, The Windstar Foundation.  I drove out to Aspen to attend three of its conferences.  They were amazing.  The people I met were amazing; and some became life-long friends.  Colorado and the Rockies were amazing.  On one trip, I even drove through John’s ancestral territory in Oklahoma, after I’d researched the Deutschendorf family tree and learned where the family farm had once been.  I set up and maintained a Windstar discussion list through e-mail.  I helped to organize the Windstar library, sometimes handling books that had come directly from John’s house.  The Windstar newsletter published my first environmental article in 1994.  Finally, I had the chance to thank John in person and to shake hands with him twice, and to get a good photograph taken of the two of us together.  A fan could hardly hope for more.

     Thus inspired, I began to volunteer at local nature centers.  I organized my co-workers to adopt a two-mile portion of roadway to keep litter-free.  I studied for a master’s degree in outdoor teacher education.  I began to write a lot, and sometimes on nature and environmental themes.  My comfort at making solo cross-country drives put me at ease enough to move to the Midwest for a time, when the opportunity arose.  It also gave me the confidence to write a book that required a lot of travel and long-distance driving.  My book was also tangentially about nature.

     What happened on Columbus Day weekend in 1997 is still too devastating for me to talk about or write about.  It is still difficult for me to listen to John’s music at times, or to think of him very much at all.  It’s all too painful, all too personal.  Some day in the future, I’ll have to address that time and those feelings.  And someday, I’ll have to make a pilgrimage to Monterey Bay.  Someday.

     In 1998 and a bit afterward, however, I still attended a few Windstar-related workshops in Ohio and in Colorado.  I met John’s brother Ron.  I helped to plant trees in a park in Aspen in John’s memory.  The dedication ceremony for it was overwhelmingly emotional.  The audience and the participants consisted of a combination of John’s friends and relatives, his fellow musicians and his fans.  I remember hearing Annie Denver speak that day.  I remember seeing John’s mother, Erma Deutschendorf, sobbing.  But my face was wet the whole time, too.  It wouldn’t be the first or the last time I would shed tears for John.

     After a long period away from it, I once again listened to the Rocky Mountain High album in order to write this piece.  And it felt great.  And I smiled.  The songs still captivate me.  I also ripped open my John Denver box to revisit its contents.  Maybe I’m heading on a path for the wound to begin to heal.

     While I know most of the songs that John Denver recorded, and I like and admire and perform a fair amount of them, my favorites remain the ones that meant so much to me from the Rocky Mountain High album. Today, 40 years later -- OMG, John, 40 YEARS! -- these songs are still empowering to me.  Whenever I need a boost in spirit, or a prod to keep on going, or even some consolation and motivation to drive across a really high bridge, all I need to do is to hear this music or to sing it to myself.  “Rocky Mountain High” or “Summer” will do, but “Spring” is the best choice of all.  Then I’m good to go.  I’m recharged.  I can take on the world.  “A part of everything is here in me.”  YES!  Let’s have at it!

     I know that my life would have taken quite a different turn without John Denver, without Rocky Mountain High, without the Windstar Foundation, without once-regular long-distance drives to Aspen, and without a commitment to Nature and the environment.  I owe a great deal to someone who came into our lives on one jet plane … and then left us all too soon on another one.  Thanks again, John.  I may be beginning to “understand the need to carry on.”

Thursday, October 10, 2013

1972: Confirmed; or, Surviving a Lutheran Childhood

by Corinne H. Smith

1972:  I turned fifteen years old.  I was in tenth grade at Hempfield High School.  Daddy was 43, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna.  Mom worked as a nurse at a local clinic.  We lived on Dale Avenue in West Hempfield Township.  The #1 most popular song on my fifteenth birthday was “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash.  Mom snapped this photograph.

     My parents and I attended church on most Sundays at the Holy Spirit Lutheran Church on Columbia Avenue in Lancaster.  It was a relatively new church.  My parents weren’t charter members, but they joined the congregation soon after it was established, in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  Before the actual church was built, the group met at the Hambright Elementary School, a few miles east on Millersville Road.

     Both of my parents were born and raised as Lutherans.  Mom had been a member of Christ Lutheran Church in Allentown.  Daddy was part of the small family parish at St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Macungie, where nearly everyone in the congregation was related to one another.  Neither one of my parents questioned their roots.  We were a Lutheran household.

     Each Sunday we’d drive the two miles to get to the church.  The ride took all of five minutes. But it was long enough for my pain to begin.  On a regular basis, I’d lie on the back seat and moan that my stomach hurt.  As I recall, I was really only halfway making this up.  I simply did not want to go to Sunday school.  I didn’t see the point.  I didn’t care about or see any relevance in the stories that we were told.  The little arts and crafts activities that we did when we were younger were mildly entertaining but hardly educational.  I didn’t like the place or the experience.  And the repetitive and meaningless church service was even worse.
     My revulsion renewed itself each time Sunday came around, and it grew exponentially with every passing second in the car.  At times I even felt myself getting physically sick.  I suppose I had the whole mind-body connection going.  I complained.  Loudly.  But my protests were ignored, and we continued on to Holy Spirit anyway. 

     We were moderately involved in the organization.  Daddy played the flute for occasional services.  Mom sang in the choir, and when I was deemed old enough, I joined her there.  Once I even had to portray Mary for the Christmas program -- promoted from my original part as a walk-on second angel -- when a sudden snowstorm prevented the girl with the leading role from getting to the church in time.  Ick.  This was the penalty for living too close to the place.

     To myself, I’d been questioning the whole operation for a number of years.  I realized that I was going through the motions of the weekly liturgy without understanding or accepting any of its basic tenets.  When I finally took the time to think about the symbols and their underlying meanings, I decided that I didn’t believe in any of them.  It then seemed ridiculous to recite or sing words that I rejected.  So I stopped.  I didn’t bow my head, I didn’t mumble the responses or the creeds or the prayers.  When the hymns came up, I moved my lips but just hummed the alto parts.  I made sure that the actual words didn’t come out of my mouth.  With these coping mechanisms in place, I could be true to my own feelings, and still acquiesce to my mother’s wishes.  I hoped that no one would notice.

     Somewhere along the line, an adult who led our Sunday school classes asked if we had any questions.  I decided to speak up and to go for the big one.  I asked for proof that God existed.  As I recall, he didn’t hesitate a second.  He opened his arms wide and said, “Just look at our wonderful world!  Who but God could have created it?”

     Well, that was no answer for me.  I think I mustered up an “Oh, right,” and turned away to shake my head.  I was disappointed, but not surprised.  He was just someone else who was going through the motions without thinking too deeply about what he was doing. 

     By the Spring of 1972, I had turned the magic age to get confirmed in the church.  I went along with the scheme.  My parents, especially my mother, expected it of me.  We had no discussions on the subject.  My participation was just assumed.  We were steeped in a German and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.  We didn’t talk about these kinds of things.  Well, first of all, we didn’t talk about these kinds of things.  And second of all, I knew I would be opening a gargantuan Pandora’s box if I voiced my concerns and objections.  So I kept quiet and went along.

     There were four of us in the confirmation class: two boys and two girls.  We attended a few sessions in combination with some fellow confirmees at another local Lutheran church.  I remember that we were assigned to read the beginning of Genesis and had to understand all of its “begats.”  Why?  I don’t remember why. 

     At the end of the process, we each had a one-on-one office meeting with the minister who would confirm us.  Once again, I was asked if I had any questions.  Once again, I decided to speak up and to this time go for number two.  I asked for proof that the stories in the Bible were true.  As I recall, the minister pointed to the overflowing bookshelves on the opposite wall.  He began to ramble about all of the volumes that had been written about the individual books in the Bible.  Would I like to borrow any of them?

     I scanned some of the titles on the spines.  I sure didn’t see anything that looked as if it would give me the explanation I wanted.  I shook my head and said No.  Once again, I was disappointed by getting a non-answer.  If two of the top administrators of this outfit couldn’t sufficiently summarize the basics of Christian faith to my satisfaction, why should I go along with it? Was everyone just going through the motions?  What kind of gig was this, anyway?

     Alas, I had misjudged the confidentiality of the minister’s office.  Soon after this meeting, my mother casually mentioned to me that the minister had spoken to her.  He told her that one of the four confirmees had doubts about joining the church.  With a plummeting stomach, I tried to look innocent as I replied, “Really?  Who?”  I expected her to say me.  Instead, she named the other girl in the class, Vicki.  “Oh,” I said, with inner glee.  And I thought to myself, How cool is this?  It turns out that I’m not the only one with questions.  And I went on my merry way.  Mom never continued the conversation.

    It’s only been in recent years that the truth has dawned on me.  The minister would only have shared with my mother any concerns he had about me.  He wouldn’t have told her anything about his meetings with Vicki or the others.  Mom knew all along what question I had asked him.  And yet she never confronted me about it.  Germans!

     On March 26, 1972, the four of us were confirmed at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church.  We each got a copy of the then-current Lutheran hymnal (The Red Book!) with our names embossed on each cover.  Yes, I still have it.  It’s difficult to donate a book anonymously to any library sale or used-book venue when it’s got your name printed right on it.  

"The Red Book," complete with my name on the cover

     I continued to suspend my disbelief in organized religion for the benefit of my mother.  Then, wouldn’t you know it, a higher power intervened.  A handful of years later, in the late 1970s, my father and I both got kicked out of the Lutheran church.  I could not believe my good fortune!

     Here’s what happened.  Holy Spirit was between ministers at the time, and a lay committee gained control of the parish.  Its members decided that anyone who had not taken communion in a while would get a letter saying that they would be removed from the church register unless they came forward and acquiesced or repented.  Today my father and I can’t remember the particulars:  whether it was three months or six months that the committee used as its cut-off point.  I was at a college five hours away, and I rarely went home during the course of a semester.  I got one of the letters, because I hadn’t taken communion within the expected time period.

     My father got a letter, too.  But Mom didn’t.  Why?  Because a week earlier, both of my parents had attended what was then the once-a-month communion service.  Mom had taken communion.  But my father was playing the flute that Sunday, and he and the organist kept a steady stream of music going while everyone else filed up front.  The two musicians never took communion that day.  So my father didn’t fill out one of the little slips of paper you were supposed to hand to the usher after the wafer and wine bit.  And that’s why Daddy got a letter, too.

     Mom was outraged.  She was livid.  She vowed to never set foot in that church again.  How could she ever go back to a place that treated her husband and her daughter so callously?  I was at college, so I didn’t witness the ensuing commotion firsthand.  But I know there was a lot of it.  The committee was deemed to have had no power to issue such declarations.  When Holy Spirit eventually got another minister, he spent some time back-pedaling, apologizing, and trying to win my mother back.  I’m not sure he ever did.

     I saw the situation as My Way Out.  Finally!  “Well, I got kicked out of the Lutheran church,” is all I would need to say to anyone who would ask me about any religious affiliations.  I wouldn’t even have to supply details.

     And that was my last formal affiliation with a church.  Oh, there have been a few digressions in the intervening years, but only a few.  The biggest one was being married for eight years to a musician who happened to also be a choir director. I was rather forced to sing in a Presbyterian church on most Sundays because of him.  Eventually I came to my senses, exerted my authority, and said I couldn’t and wouldn’t sing there anymore.  A mutually agreed-upon divorce followed not too long afterward.  (To be fair:  Singing in church was only a minor issue involved in the break.)

     In 1993, we held my mother’s memorial service at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church.  I’m not sure she would have wanted it that way, but my father and I had few other choices to consider.  Technically, she was probably still a member.  Or were all three of us still members?  I don’t know.  I’d been kicked out, remember?

     I’ve probably sat in on fewer than two dozen church services in the last 20 years.  There have been a few weddings, a few funerals.  I still refuse to aimlessly recite any words I don’t believe in.  So don’t be surprised at my non-compliance, if you find yourself sitting next to me in such situations in the future.

     If I wasn’t a Lutheran, or even a Christian, what was I?  An atheist?  Agnostic?  I knew what I didn’t believe.  What did I believe instead?  Of this, I was not sure.  I was still thinking.

     1972 marked a variety of confirmations for me, and the most public one was a sham.  But don’t cry for me, Argentina.  Other mentors with brimming bandwagons would soon come my way, and I would be a willing jumper.