You Can’t Go Home Again

My Old High School Gets Razed

As I sit here sweltering in Los Angeles, I am conscious of the scenes of my past being erased from view, almost as if they had never existed.

But they did. Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio was the scene of my triumphs. I was not only the valedictorian of my class, but also the recipient of the Mr. Chanel award for my contributions to the school. Because of budgetary constraints felt by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, Chanel was shut down in 2013. Today, I discovered in an email from my brother Dan that the school is now being wrecked by the City of Bedford.

Chanel High, which ended its life as St. Peter Chanel High, was opened in 1957. I was in the second graduating class of the school (1962), having started out as a freshman when there was only a sophomore class ahead of me.

old St. Henry Elementary School on Harvard Road, which I attended between 1951 and 1958. has been closed down for some time. No longer are the devoted Dominican Sisters who taught me walking the halls rustling the large wooden rosaries they wore, and Father John Hreha has no one to yell at. I believe it now exists as the Harvard Community Services Center.

My very first school, Harvey Rice Elementary at 2730 East 116th Street in Cleveland, still exists. I went there for Kindergarten and half of First Grade. I didn’t do well because I didn’t speak English at that time, only Hungarian. When we moved to the Harvard-Lee area in the summer of 1951, I was signed up for Second Grade at the new St. Henry School, never having completed First Grade. (Sometimes, I still fear that knock at the door in the middle of the night reminding me that I have to go back to Cleveland to finish First Grade.)

Dites-moi où, dans quel pays,
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipiades, et Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo, parlant quant bruit on mène
Dessus rivière ou sur étang,
Qui beauté eut surhumaine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Sometimes, I feel as if my life were one of the novels of the Argentinian César Aira, whose stories progress like one of those Roomba vacuums—always going forward, and never back.

Even though much of my past has been erased, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire is still around. But since most of the stately elm trees died of Dutch Elm Disease, and the school decided to fill every open space with new buildings, I don’t recognize the place any more.

Greed

José Clemente Orozco Mural at Dartmouth College

So many of our problems as a nation are due to the institutionalization of greed in our culture. Even in our Declaration of Independence, we are declared to have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Originally, the text read “Property” instead of “the pursuit of Happiness.”

So here we are, with the 21st century well under way, admiring billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, as well as self-declared billionaires (but not really) like Donald J. Trump. As a people, we still believe the rich are job creators, even when they get rich by sending American jobs overseas, in which case they could be regarded as job destroyers. In the meantime, we are becoming poorer as a nation, even while believing the opposite.

When José Clemente Orozco painted his famous murals at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library, he was commenting on the betrayal of ideals in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, which came hard on the heels of the Porfiriato, the stifling military dictatorship of Don Porfirio Díaz, which ran from 1876 to 1910. He also painted elsewhere on campus, the so-called “Hovey Murals,” which were so controversial that they were painted over for offending wealthy alumni donors.

Small wonder that they weren’t offended by the above panel from the Baker Library murals.

The wealthy are correct to regard the United States as the land of opportunity. This opportunity, however, comes at a cost. We are too ready to enthrone greed as an American virtue while treating the American poor as somehow losers in the game of life.

The Cleveland Limited

New York Central Passenger Train

I have been set musing by watching Satyajit Ray’s film Aparajito, with its hero Apu who goes off to school in Calcutta, leaving his widowed mother alone with a relative in rural Bengal. When I left home to go away to college, it was because my parents’ marriage appeared to be heading for the rocks; and I didn’t want to have to be in the middle of it. Plus, of course, I was proud to have a full scholarship to an Ivy League school.

When school started in the fall, my parents drove me to Dartmouth College and would stay for several days at the Chieftain Motel which was situated north of Hanover on the banks of the Connecticut River. But for the most part, I took public transportation to and from Hanover, New Hampshire, where my college was located.

There were three legs to the journey:

  • Between Cleveland and Albany, New York, I took a New York Central train called the Cleveland Limited Train #57 (Westbound) and #58 (Eastbound), which was all coach.
  • Between Albany and Rutland, Vermont, I took a Vermont Transit bus that originated in New York or Burlington, Vermont.
  • Between Rutland and Hanover, I took two White River Coaches, one to White River Junction, Vermont, and the other to Hanover, a scant five miles farther on.

In both directions, the Cleveland Limited was an overnighter. It was fiercely uncomfortable, especially in the winter when the same coach could be blisteringly hot and freezingly cold on the same trip. It was impossible to get a good night’s rest, because of the lights and noise whenever the train stopped at Utica, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and wherever else it stopped.

In Albany, I had to wait (in both directions) for several hours at the once grandiose Union Station. I remember writing a poem in which I called it “oldgold in decrepitude.” There was no place to get a meal at the station, so I had to munch on candy bars and drink sodas.

The Vermont Transit bus was a nice ride, except for its passage through Troy, New York, which I then thought was the ugliest city I had ever seen. And that from a resident of Cleveland!

There was a much better connection at Rutland to the White River Coach, which went along the banks of the Ottauqueechee River to White River Junction and with a quick transfer to Hanover.

I would travel both ways during my Christmas vacation (which lasted 2½-3 weeks) and the spring break (about 1½ weeks). If I was lucky, we would see the sun in Cleveland for upwards of twenty minutes during the whole vacation.

My First Poet

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) As He Looked When I Met Him

It was my freshman year at Dartmouth College. When I heard that beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was going to visit the campus, give a poetry reading from his recently published collection A Coney Island of the Mind, and answer questions, I decided to show up. In all, there were about twenty-five students in the audience, plus a few professors.

I really enjoyed the poems, such as this one, which is called “I Am Waiting”:

I am waiting for my case to come up  
and I am waiting 
for a rebirth of wonder  
and I am waiting          
          for someone to really discover America  
and wail 
and I am waiting  
for the discovery 
of a new symbolic western frontier  
and I am waiting 
for the American Eagle  
to really spread its wings  
and straighten up and fly right  
and I am waiting 
for the Age of Anxiety  
to drop dead  
and I am waiting  
for the war to be fought 
which will make the world safe  
for anarchy 
and I am waiting  
for the final withering away  
of all governments  
and I am perpetually awaiting  
a rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the Second Coming  
and I am waiting 
for a religious revival 
to sweep through the state of Arizona  
and I am waiting 
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored  
and I am waiting 
for them to prove  
that God is really American  
and I am waiting 
to see God on television  
piped’ onto church altars  
if only they can find  
the right channel  
to tune in on  
and I am waiting 
for the Last Supper to be served again  
with a strange new appetizer  
and I am perpetually awaiting  
a rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for my number to be called  
and I am waiting 
for the Salvation Army to take over  
and I am waiting 
for the meek to be blessed 
and inherit the earth  
without taxes and I am waiting  
for forests and animals  
to reclaim the earth as theirs  
and I am waiting  
for a way to be devised  
to destroy all nationalisms  
without killing anybody 
and I am waiting 
for linnets and planets to fall like rain  
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers  
to lie down together again 
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the Great Divide to ‘be crossed  
and I am anxiously waiting 
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered  
by an obscure general practitioner  
and I am waiting 
for the storms of life  
to be over  
and I am waiting  
to set sail for happiness  
and I am waiting  
for a reconstructed Mayflower  
to reach America  
with its picture story and tv rights  
sold in advance to the natives  
and I am waiting  
for the lost music to sound again  
in the Lost Continent  
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the day  
that maketh all things clear  
and I am awaiting retribution  
for what America did 
to Tom Sawyer  
and I am waiting  
for the American Boy  
to take off Beauty’s clothes  
and get on top of her  
and I am waiting  
for Alice in Wonderland  
to retransmit to me  
her total dream of innocence  
and I am waiting  
for Childe Roland to come  
to the final darkest tower  
and I am waiting  
for Aphrodite 
to grow live arms  
at a final disarmament conference  
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting  
to get some intimations  
of immortality  
by recollecting my early childhood  
and I am waiting  
for the green mornings to come again  
youth’s dumb green fields come back again  
and I am waiting  
for some strains of unpremeditated art  
to shake my typewriter  
and I am waiting to write 
the great indelible poem 
and I am waiting 
for the last long careless rapture  
and I am perpetually waiting  
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn  
to catch each other up at last  
and embrace 
and I am waiting  
perpetually and forever  
a renaissance of wonder            

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on Monday, February 22, which is Washington’s birthday, at the ripe old age of 101, just a month shy of his 102nd.

I was too shy to ask the poet any questions, being a detested freshman. But I did enjoy seeing him handle the know-it-alls that asked questions only to make themselves look good. Ferlinghetti may have been a poet, but he knew how to handle wise asses.

The Muralist

Quetzalcoatl Mural at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library

During the four years I was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I spent many hours studying in the reserve room of Baker Library where, between 1932 and 1934, José Clemente Orozco painted a striking series of murals named “The Epic of American Civilization.” One of the images (above) was of the god Quetzalcoatl (or Plumed Serpent) crossing the Gulf of Mexico to Yucatán. It was largely due to Quetzalcoatl’s yellow beard in Aztec iconography that misled Moctezuma to believe that Hernán Cortés was Quetzalcoatl returned to the Aztecs. We all know how that turned out….

Orozco also did other murals at a dining hall at Dartmouth, but they were removed because they were thought to be Communist, and the Patricians in control at Dartmouth were aghast that the Mexican visitor would abuse their hospitality. (A similar thing happened in Los Angelist, where Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted a mural called “América Tropical” that was painted over for similar reasons.)

I love Orozco’s work. At one point, I even journeyed to Guadalajara to see more of his work, such as the image of Miguel Hidalgo below:

Mural by Jose Clemente Orozco featuring Miguel Hidalgo (leader of the Mexican War of Independence), Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace), in the historic Center of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Censorship of a great work of art because one does not believe in the political philosophy espoused by the artist is, to my mind, barbaric. Only in the United States is there a simultaneous attraction/repulsion response to Orozco’s emphatic mural style. Any attempt to paint over his work in Mexico would cause a bloody riot. But then, Mexico does not swing as far to the right as our country does.

 

The Houses of Poets

The Robert Frost House in Franconia, NH

When traveling, I like to visit the houses in which poets I admire lived. When I was in Chile in 2015, I made a point of visiting all three of Pablo Neruda’s houses: Isla Negra, La Sebastiana, and La Chascona. In Paris, I visited the flat in which Victor Hugo had lived. And, in Franconia, New Hampshire, I visited the farmhouse which Robert Frost occupied beginning in 1915 after he published his collection A Boy’s Will and afterwards as a summer house through most of the 1930s.

Frost remains one of my favorite American poets, along with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. If you look through the same window a great poet has looked through, you begin to understand something about his work.

Mailbox at the Franconia House

Before he died in 1963, I attended a poetry reading by Frost at the newly opened Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. Frost had attended Dartmouth for a while, but dropped out. He also attended Harvard, but he never graduated college. As old as he was, Frost was in complete command of his mind at the age of 87. And I have been moved by his poetry ever since. I got the feeling that Frost was not the bumbling old poet who read his poem “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961: Hearing him speak, I had a feeling that Frost knew exactly what he was doing, and had no trouble handling an auditorium filled with sharp college undergraduates.

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Dartmouth

Dartmouth Hall

I was shocked to find that Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born in March 1919) was still alive. Today, I borrowed one of his poetry collections from the L.A. Central Library and remembered with great pleasure running into the poet himself at Dartmouth College around the mid 1960s. He was on campus to read a selection of poems from his collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) and to answer questions.

Never in my life had I seen someone with his uncanny ability to deflect questions. My classmates posed the usual bullshit queries that were typical of people who wanted to look very intellectual but didn’t know what they were talking about. I enjoyed the poems, and I liked all the anecdotes of the beatnik poets he published, such as Allen Ginsburg,  Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. But I kept my mouth shut lest I be exposed like so many of my classmates were.

Ferlinghetti’s Poetry Collection

I was pleasantly surprised to find that A Coney Island of the Mind is the best-selling poetry collection ever published in the United States, having sold in excess of a million copies.

Five Epiphanies

Ushuaia from the Air

It was James Joyce who, in Stephen Hero and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, coined the term epiphanies to refer to moments of clarity and sudden recognition of another perspective. There were several points in my life in which I had a shock of recognition and that I looked back on as pivotal points in my development as a person. In this post, I recognize five such epiphanies that occurred in my life:

Dartmouth College 1962

It was a bad year. It looked as if my parents were headed for divorce, and rare was the day when there were no mutual recriminations. I was delighted that I was accepted at Dartmouth. When, during the summer, my future roommate’s parents drove me up to the campus, I fell in love with the place, deciding that here was a place I could heal.

Cleveland 1966

I was released from Fairview General Hospital after brain surgery to remove a pituitary tumor. As I was sitting as a passenger in our family automobile, I saw the people in the street almost as angelic beings. It was only after the operation that I was told how serious the operation was; and that my life was despaired of. I thought momentarily of Miranda’s lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
Uxmal 1975
On my first trip outside the United States, I arranged with Turistica Yucateca to have a driver take me to the Maya ruins at Uxmal in the Puuc Hills. As his car pulled up to the magnificent Templo del Adivino, he made a sign of the cross. I felt that I was on holy ground.
Death Valley 1979
It was my first camping trip and my first real introduction to the desert. We were at Furnace Creek, with desolation all around us. Just after sunrise, birds of every variety flocked to the campground and woke us up.
Ushuaia 2006
It was my first trip to South America. As our plane descended to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, only 600 miles from Antarctica, I felt a shiver of excitement. Never mind that I was to break my shoulder in a blizzard within a few days, Ushuaia has always stood for a kind of subarctic wilderness. I returned in 2011 with Martine and would gladly return again.

 

Discovering the Long Scroll

Excerpt from the Long Scroll of Sesshū Tōyō

For the first time in my life, I away away from home, alone. I was seventeen years old when I found myself at Dartmouth College. The only person I knew from before was Frank Opaskar, with whom I had gone to Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. But I quickly found myself becoming estranged from Frank because of his anxiety about his complexion. I had the top bunk in our dorm room, and Frank insisted in smearing himself with Noxzema. Every night, I was wafted into sleep by the medicated stench of his facial preparation.

Naturally, I was desperate to lift my mind from the humdrum life of study and Noxzema. Fortunately, I found several ways of escape. One of them was art….

In my first year at Dartmouth, the Hopkins Center for the Arts opened. One of the first shows in the art gallery was of the Long Landscape Scroll by Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506), a Zen Buddhist master whose art work made me feel at home. I don’t know why: I had had no previous exposure in my Catholic education to Zen ink and wash paintings of the Muromachi school.

But what I saw was magical. It was a landscape of mists and rocks and water in which pilgrims were trekking from one place to another. I loved it at once. Did I see a sudden paradigm of my own life, wrenched from a close Hungarian family into the wide world? I followed the scroll from left to right—not just once, but many times in numerous visits while the exhibit lasted.

If you want to see what I saw, you can see an image by clicking here. Scroll about a third of the way down and scroll slowly to the right. The image doesn’t allow you to get close, but you get the general idea. I bought a copy of the scroll from Tuttle, the Japanese-American publishing house then located in nearby Rutland, Vermont.

You can say it was Sesshū Tōyō  who introduced me to Zen Buddhism. It was a splendid introduction.

Bad Alumnus

Omigosh, Is It Time for My 50th Reunion Already?

Omigosh, Is It Time for My 50th Reunion Already?

On June 3, 1966, I graduated with an A.B. from Dartmouth College. What’s an A.B, you may ask? Well, as my diploma is entirely in Latin, it stands for Artium Baccalaurei, or Bachelor of Arts.

Although I am besieged with mail from the college, asking for money, participation in local and national alumni events (such as my 50th Reunion), and deluxe trips around the world with other alums. Will I participate? Uh, no. That despite the fact that I was awarded a four-year alumni scholarship, for which I am grateful—but not in any material way.

What bothers me is that none of the people I knew and liked at Dartmouth are active with the alumni. Instead, it’s all the same gladhander crew that was active in the fraternity system (which I loathed), student government (for which I was not popular enough), and/or sports (for which I didn’t qualify). I went through four years of Dartmouth with a brain tumor, which was not operated on until September 1966. Until then, I looked like an extraordinarily pale and sickly middle school or high school student.

It’s not that I didn’t make friends easily. My oldest friend was one of my classmates who now lives only 25 miles from me in San Pedro. There are others, but they were all like me in one way or another—and none saw fit to become active with the alums.

Somehow I managed to survive the college years, and even enjoyed them despite a level of pain that would sink me into my grave today. Those frontal headaches were almost constant, the result of a pituitary tumor pressing against my optic nerve. Today I am a different person altogether.

The one debt I feel I owe Dartmouth is actually to the Catholic Student Center there. When I was lying near death at Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland, my parents were shocked to find that my student insurance had just expired. They told Monsignor William Nolan of the Center to pray for me, which he did—and more. He went to bat for me and bullyragged the insurance company into covering me. Imagine that happening today!

Monsignor Nolan has since gone to join his ancestors, but I still owe him. And he gets paid in full before anyone else at Dartmouth gets dime one from me.