Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seldom at a loss for words. Three days previously, he had nominated the most prominent Irish-American at the time, Joseph P. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to be the United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The President was amused that he had appointed “someone so Irish” to the second most prestigious position in the State Department as the new Ambassador to England.
Much to his chagrin, however, FDR soon began receiving a plethora of outraged phone calls disputing his controversial appointment, mostly from indignant Irish-Americans. Roosevelt looked baffled as he took still another call from an irritated Irish-American official.
He glanced over at his very Boston-Irish secretary, Missy LeHand, and muttered, “What is the matter with you people? The minute one of you accomplishes anything – there’s always another fellow behind him with a rock, more than eager to bring him down.”
Missy LeHand merely smiled.
As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, those of us who are Irish would surely nod their heads in an endorsement of Roosevelt’s allegation if his testimonial could be magically circulated throughout the Irish world. A case in point: some years ago, I ran into my elderly, Irish-American father as he was coming out of our local high school to vote in an important general election in Massachusetts. His eyes twinkled as he glanced at me.
“Shaunie!” my father hollered, “are you here to cancel my vote?”
“I am, Dad,” I replied.
Without even so much as a hint of irony, he barked, “Good for you!”
Dad then gave me a thumbs-up as I strutted into the polling place to negate all of his political preferences that year.
“The Irish,” H. L. Mencken once observed, “have a logic all their own.” There is a famous story often told among Irish circles concerning the famed dual clock towers situated in Ballyhough. The two clocks disagreed at the correct time – one was six minutes faster than the other. When a visiting American asked one of the community’s locals why the town would have two such splendid clock towers that told conflicting times, the man replied, “And what would we be wanting with two clocks if they told the same time?”
Legendary British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once stated, “You never know what is going to spew forth from an Irishman’s lips. They are a completely unpredictable lot.”
Disraeli’s thesis could certainly be applied to an incident that occurred in June 1963 during President Kennedy’s visit to Europe, which included stops in Germany, England, and Ireland. Pope John XXIII had died suddenly during JFK’s first stop on the trip – West Berlin. By the time Kennedy neared the end of his stay in Europe, Pope Paul VI had already been installed as the latest Bishop of Rome. John Kennedy decided to pay the new pontiff a visit.
The nation’s thirty-fifth president contacted his old friend, Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, and instructed the Catholic leader to meet him as Air Force One rolled onto the runway at Rome’s international airport. Ultimately, Cushing drove to the airport with two aides; all of the other cardinals in the American delegation had already returned to the United States. As President Kennedy stepped into view from his plane, he noticed Cushing standing alone at the bottom of Air Force One’s ramp.
“Jack! Jack!” cried out the Cardinal to his most famous parishioner. “The American cardinals have left! They’re all a bunch of goddamn Republicans!”
President Kennedy, according to eyewitnesses, collapsed in spasms of laughter.
“The Irish don’t get back – they get even,” stated Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the legendary Boston congressman, in his spellbinding autobiography, Man of the House. The notion of the famous “Irish grudge” could best be summed up with the words of a traditional Irish curse which goes something like this: “May none of their race survive/May God destroy them all/Each curse of the psalms in the holy books/Of the prophets on them fall. Amen.”
The capriciousness of the Irish was also evident when I stood in line to have acclaimed Irish-American author, Frank McCourt, sign a copy of his Pulitzer-Prize-winning tome, Angela’s Ashes. Throughout the memoir, humor and pathos had been the constants of a childhood of poverty that left the reader laughing despite the tragedies. After his “shiftless, loquacious, alcoholic father” who deserted the family during their time of most need, McCourt’s Pa was found two decades later working as a cook at a monastery.
“Then food must have been their penance,” McCourt wrote.
So here I was in line at a prominent bookstore in Stamford, Connecticut waiting for the great man to sign a copy of his book. when I finally reached his table, he smiled brightly at me and exclaimed, “And whom do I make this out to…my lad?” McCourt.
“To me, Sir. My name is Shaun Kelly,”
“Acchhhh,” he sighed, “May God forgive you.”
From the get-go, the Irish have always loved a good fight. When the Irish fought the English hundreds of years ago, the legend has it that the Anglo-Saxons could not believe how the Celtic Warriors absolutely delighted in the all-consuming passion of hand-to-hand combat. “Their savagery was beyond normality; waves of ecstasy shone from their eyes,” wrote a mystified English chronicler.
In modern times, James Michael Curley, the legendary Boston Irish politician who was immortalized in Edwin O’Connor’s classic novel, The Last Hurrah, embraced the Irish ferocity mindset throughout his colorful fifty-year political career. Curley, who was elected twice from jail, was the quintessential Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor – but he also took ten percent off as a surcharge. Loquacious, opinionated, and flamboyant, the Mayor could charm any bird from a tree.
Despite his obvious rascality, however, Jim Curley was, according to legendary Speaker of the House, Congressman Tip O’Neill, “a man who did a tremendous amount of good for the people of Boston. As mayor, he provided thousands of jobs while improving the schools and the playgrounds, paving streets, expanding the subway, establishing public beaches, putting up affordable hospitals, tearing down slums, and doing favors for an untold number of people who truly needed help.”
According to O’Neill, however, James Michael Curley detested the ruling Yankee aristocracy, pronouncing them as “our Brahmin overlords.” Obviously, the mayor loved to get back at them whenever he could. Once, when an important project that would benefit the poor in Boston was blocked because the local business establishment, virtually all of them controlled by “Yankees” at the time, the mayor personally visited one of them, the defiant owner of Filene’s. “I want you to know,” Jim Curley informed the Filene’s CEO, “that the city’s water ‘main’ goes right under your fancy building here. If you don’t know where it is, your building manager can surely tell you. If I don’t have that money by this very afternoon,” the mayor exclaimed, “then I’ll open the valves and flood Filene’s Basement in an instant.”
The City of Boston received its loan that afternoon.
Self-effacing humor is another quality that is held dear by most Irishmen. In the quaint vernacular of the Irish, a wheelbarrow is called an Irish ambulance, a diaper is known as an Irish flag, and a rock is sometimes referred to as an Irish diamond. Two of the most popular modern presidents used self-effacing humor to disarm their political opponents. It is no coincidence that John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were both proud Irish-Americans. When an infuriated reporter tried to nail President-elect Kennedy as to the meager qualifications of his then thirty-four-year-old brother, Bobby, after JFK had appointed Bobby as the nation’s new Attorney General, Kennedy replied, “I don’t see what’s wrong with Robert gaining a little government experience before he goes on to establish a practice in law.”
In 1962, when a reporter commented to JFK that the Republican National Committee had formally concluded that he was pretty much a failure, the President flashed his legendary smile and replied, “Well, I am sure that such a proposal passed unanimously!”
President Ronald Reagan possessed the same talent for self-mockery. After he was shot in an assassination attempt in March 1981, he told a friend, “I’ve been shot at many times in my life, but in Hollywood they always used blanks.”
When Reagan entered the operating room to remove bullet fragments from his chest, he proclaimed to the chief physician, “Let’s just hope you are a Republican!”
Both Kennedy and Reagan could laugh at themselves because they both possessed such obvious self-confidence and panache. Politicians in both parties have tried unsuccessfully to emulate them since their presidencies but have been unable to capture the magic of their particular brand of drollery and wit.
“The Irish,” observed T. H. White, “are rank sentimentalists. Their prose and verse drip with a mawkishness that would be unsettling to most other cultures. And yet, I continue to find myself deeply moved by their poems, novels, and lyrics. “Danny Boy,” for instance, still brings tears to even the most stoic of individuals.
The following prayer was recited at the christening of John F. Kennedy, Jr., in 1961:
We wish to the new child
A heart that can be beguiled
By a flower
That the wind lifts
As it passes.
So fleetingly, so fragile.
If the storms break for him
May the trees shake for him –
their blossoms down
And in the night that he is troubled
May a friend wake for him
so that his time be doubled,
And at the end of all the loving
and all the love,
May the Man above –
Give him a crown.
38 years later, the same poem was recited at his funeral by his grieving uncle.
May the wayward winds be with you on this Saint Patrick’s Day!
When I explained what a proverb was to one of my honor’s English classes a few years ago, I reminded them that such adages were verbal warning shots, sighs, clarion calls, or expressions of wisdom, which generally have a prolonged shelf-life, often lasting for more than a millennium.
Within each passage, I explained, one could find examples of values, moral behavior, the meaning of human life, and righteous conduct. After we studied both the Book of Proverbs and Poor Richard’s Almanac plus a medley of William Shakespeare maxims, the kids asked me if there was an artist in contemporary times who had generated a wellspring of modern proverbs.
“Oh, yes,” I replied, “Bob Dylan.”
Over the next week, my ninth-grade class perused through Dylan’s works and located 50 such classic axioms. Given where we are as a society these days, the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature’s takes on life during a pandemic is “like a corkscrew through the heart.” Like all great parables, Bob Dylan’s are both timely and timeless. Here then, are those Golden 50 as selected by my class.
There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.
Money doesn’t talk – it swears.
You can’t be wise, and in love at the same time.
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow.
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.
Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown.
Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?
Well, the moral of the story; the moral of this song: Is simply that one should never be – where one does not belong. So when you see your neighbor carrying something – help him with his load. And don’t go mistaking paradise – for that home across the road.
I’m sick of love, but I’m in the thick of it.
All the money you made will never buy back your soul.
In the dime stores and bus stations, people talk of situations, read books, repeat quotations, draw conclusions on the wall.
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Meanwhile, life outside goes on all around you.
So many things that we never will undo. I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too.
Look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did. God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again!
Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.
But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
Yesterday’s just a memory; tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.
Steal a little and they’ll put you in jail. Steal a lot, and they’ll make you king.
How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
Time is a jet plane — it moves too fast. Oh but what a shame that all we’ve shared can’t last.
Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.
I hate myself for loving you.
I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.
It frightens me the awful truth of how sweet life can be.
All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now.
Beauty walks a razor’s edge; someday I’ll make it mine.
I paid the price of solitude, but at least I’m out of debt.
The guilty undertaker sighs. The lonesome organ grinder cries. The silver saxophones say I should refuse you. The cracked bells and washed-out horns blow into my face with scorn. But it’s not that way, I wasn’t born to lose you.
I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.
Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay; You can always come back – but you can’t come back all the way.
But if the arrow is straight, and the point is slick, it can pierce through dust no matter how thick.
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.
In ceremonies of the horsemen, even the pawn must hold a grudge.
I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.
To live outside the law, you must be honest.
I see my light come shining, from the west down to the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.
Oh, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free!
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing left to lose.
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn. Look out your window, ‘cause I’ll be gone. You’re the reason I’m travelin’ on.
We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view.
In the fury of the moment, I can see the master’s hand in every leaf that trembles – in every grain of sand.
Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide – the chance won’t come again.
You put your eyes in your pockets, and your nose on the ground.
She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist – she don’t look back.
He who’s not busy being born, is busy dying.
The future for me is already a thing of the past.
So many things that we never will undo. I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too.
When you cease to exist, then who will you blame?
Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must.
I’ll always thank the Lord when my working day is through, I get my sweet reward to be alone with you.
Father of night, Father of day Father, who taketh the darkness away Father, who teacheth the bird to fly Builder of rainbows up in the sky Father of loneliness and pain Father of love and Father of rain
Father of day, Father of night Father of black, Father of white Father, who build the mountain so high, Who shapeth the cloud up in the sky Father of time, Father of dreams Father, who turneth the rivers and streams
Father of grain, Father of wheat Father of cold, and Father of heat Father of air, and Father of trees Who dwells in our hearts and our memories Father of minutes, Father of days Father of whom we most solemnly praise!
48 Radcliffe Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts in May 1970. Whatever the season, the house was a beacon of light to those of us who lived in it.
As a congregation of workmen employed by local builder Ralph Porter assembled on a cleared track of dirt that measured half-an-acre, the foreman immediately looked at the designated patch of ground where the firm’s bulldozer would soon continue digging. “If we’re lucky,” he said to his men, “we might be able to finish this today.”
Circling the property, piles of snow lay where the men the day before had plowed away the drifts made by a recent storm. He covered his face when the wind suddenly gusted from the northwest at 9 miles per hour. At 8:01 am on the morning of January 28, 1955, the temperature stood at 11 degrees Fahrenheit, as a hollow sun began to appear on the horizon. In pre-global warming New England, this was a typical mid-winter fare for the people who lived and worked in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
A few hours previously, at the then-named Richardson House in Boston, I was born, the fourth and last child of James Lawrence and Laura Rice Kelly, who then resided at 57 Mayo Road in Wellesley. By the end of my first day of life, the basement of the house had been completed by the work crew of Ralph Porter Construction.
Until the day she died in 2005, my mother would remind me each year on my birthday of my intimate connection to 48 Radcliffe Road. “Shaunie, we might still be on Mayo Road if you hadn’t been born! So our present house, in a special way, is yours.” For nearly four decades, it was, and although I didn’t live there for the last seven years that Mom resided there after Dad died in 1986, I still called it home.
Journalist Warsan Shire once wrote that no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. For me, it was the place where I could totally be myself, and I was a full time resident of 48 Radcliffe Road from 1955-1982. Infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood – 48 Radcliffe Road was the epicenter of who I was for more than 26 years.
Here I am in my new digs – my bedroom at 48 Radcliffe Road – still moving in six-months later.
In the end, I knew every nook and cranny. During unrelenting windstorms, I recognized it’s groans, aches, and sighs. Our house could be scorching to the touch in a July heatwave or shiver in the midst of a February gale. I was there when our abode survived Hurricane Donna in 1960, and I helped Mom clean up after Hurricane Bob in 1991. When the legendary Blizzard of ‘78 hit Wellesley with hurricane winds and snowdrifts up to 56 inches at Mrs. Pelles’s house at the bottom of Radcliffe Road, my parents received food and supplies by sleigh for a week. Homes, like people, have their own peculiarities, and our house, while conventional developed its own personality. It was a well-lit comfort blanket, a safe harbor, and a fierce warrior who stood up to all kinds of weather.
48 Radcliffe Road in a February blizzard, 1969. My bedroom has both of its storm windows open – I never liked the heat!
Over the years, I slept in every room, played hockey in the basement, and discovered a hiding spot in the attic where I read a legion of books. I shot thousands of baskets in our driveway and participated in countless games of baseball and football on the front yard. I walked my first steps in my bedroom, rode my first bike in our elongated driveway, learned how to write at the kitchen table, and watched President Kennedy’s funeral in our book-lined den. Within its walls, I listened to everything from Little Richard and Buddy Holly to the Beatles and the Moody Blues to Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell to U2 and Bon Jovi. Virtually every girl I ever dated visited our house at one time or another.
For my first 35 Christmases, I celebrated 34 of them at 48 Radcliffe Road. It was my home-base when I graduated from elementary school, high school, and college. On August 17, 1984, I walked from our house to St. Paul’s Church a mile away to get married to Wendy Barnes of Wellesley.
In retrospect, our dwelling was never an object. It was the seventh member of our family.
This was never more apparent than in January 1986, when my father died suddenly of a heart attack in his bedroom. A few years earlier, we conversed about where he wanted to be buried. As a World War II veteran, I thought that Dad would want to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. “Nope, Shaunie,” he smiled. “I choose to be buried right behind our house.”
This was not some Irish-tinged fantasy of an older adult who desired to be dumped in the backyard of the family baile. You see, our Wellesley dwelling abutted tree-lined Woodlawn Cemetery, and thus, this was doable.
Consequently, when Mummie traipsed up to the superintendent of the cemetery and purchased a plot as close to 48 Radcliffe Road as possible the day after Daddy’s death, his last wish became a reality. When my wife and I then drove into our driveway on the day of my father’s funeral and saw his casket lying on the ground no more than 500 feet from our house, we both smiled. “Dad’s home,” I said without irony.
Dad’s casket through the trees from our backyard on the day he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in January 1986.
Mummie ended up staying at the old homestead for another eight years after Dad died. When Wendy – who came from the other end of Wellesley at Chesterton Road – and I moved to Greenwich, Connecticut in the fall of 1989 to work at The Greenwich Country Day School, we made periodic trips home on weekends. When our first child, Sam, was born in April 1991, we took him to see my mother on several occasions. One time, he visited his Gaga in his Halloween costume, and I showed him how I used to sit at the top of the stairs and then bump my way down to the bottom! Not to be outdone, little Sammy then proceeded to up and down the stairs for what seemed like an hour. Like father – like son.
When Mum informed us that she was selling the house – “nine rooms and one person is way too much!” – we treasured each visit home. Over Christmas break, 1992, just two months before my mother moved, Sam and I showed over several mornings over our Christmas break because he loved to peck away at the piano, which had been a staple in our living room since ’55. During one visit, it began to snow, and I shoveled the walkway and grinned when I remembered the countless hours I had pushed snow away from driveway for my parents who didn’t believe in the concept of snowblowers until the mid-1980’s.
Shoveling the “too-long driveway” old-school fashion on college during Christmas break in 1974.
On January 28, 1993, my 38th birthday, our elementary school alma mater, Tenacre Country Day, invited me to attend a dinner in my mother’s honor, which was held at the Wellesley College Club. For the last time that evening, I slept in my former bedroom. Before closing the familiar blinds, I looked out at the barren treetops, which seemed to wave a special hello to me as the winter wind blew outside.
The next morning, before I returned to Greenwich, I went down to the kitchen and found a black Sharpie. I then hustled upstairs, opened the pull-down attic, and quickly made my way to the place where I had made a reading spot for myself two decades earlier. On a sturdy beam above, which faintly smelled of New England maple, I wrote, “My family lived here from April 30, 1955, to February 25, 1993. IT WILL ALWAYS BE HOME. Shaun Kelly.”
After Mom moved away, I would periodically drive by our old house and visit Dad up at Woodlawn Cemetery. 48 Radcliffe Road was upgraded, and an addition to the living room and dining room areas made the house even more livable. Still, if you viewed it from the front, it looked the same. When my mother called me one day in November 2005 and informed me that she had terminal cancer, I flew down to Florida to see her after Thanksgiving. When we said goodbye to one another, she whispered to me, “I’ll be with Dad soon, and we’ll both be overlooking the house.”
On July 6, 2018, I received a Facebook message from an old Wellesley friend who still resided in town. “Shaun,” it read, “your old house was struck by lightning. The place is crawling with firemen and firetrucks. There’s a lot of damage. I am so so sorry.”
The damage from the Fays’ house at 51 Radcliffe Road. The hole on the right side of the back of the house was where my sister’s bedroom used to be.
According to The Wellesley Townsman in its July 10, 2018 edition, “Firefighters from Wellesley and four other towns made quick work of putting down a lightning-caused residential fire on Friday, but the blaze left behind an estimated $750,000 in damage to the house and its contents. Jeff Peterson, assistant fire chief, said the firefighters were dispatched to 48 Radcliffe Road at 12:47 p.m. ‘The home’s owners were away in Maine, and the fire was reported by a neighbor. Between the structural damage and water and smoke damage, the house will not be immediately habitable. The five-bedroom home was built in 1955,’ said Peterson.”
The fire at 48 Radcliffe Road was one of the lead stories that evening on the local Boston TV 4 News.
As soon as I received the message from my Wellesley friend, I frantically called my sister, Karen, after I heard about the fire. “An errant lightning bolt during a thunderstorm hit the attic, seared through to your old bedroom, and created havoc everywhere!” I exclaimed. We were both in shock. The Wellesley Townsman later reported that the house was uninhabitable.
A month later, I visited Wellesley before an afternoon Sox game at Fenway Park. On a whim, I parked my car at the Wellesley High School parking lot and walked home, as I had done countless times throughout the early 1970’s. Every corner, pathway, and street seemed to greet me like an old friend. As I shuffled up Hobart Road to the crest of Radcliffe, I was astonished to see our former house standing resolute and matronly, wounded but still very much alive.
At first glance, there seemed nothing awry with the structure, but then I saw the gaping hole in the roof on the right side of the structure, and I knew that I was probably seeing our old dwelling for the last time. I smiled briefly when I saw that my bedroom, which was at the other end from the damage, still looking pristine and impenetrable. Observing that no one was in the house, I sauntered up to it, pressed my left hand against its familiar wooden side, and held onto our home for a spell. It was my last goodbye. Ultimately, the original house at 48 Radcliffe Road was never inhabited again. The bolt of lightning had done too much damage.
48 Radcliffe Road in 2017 the year before the fire, a 63-year-old beauty.
For 63 years, two months, and six days, the house had been the nerve center for three families who all grew to love its warmth. In a Frostian kind of way – what other connection can I make here, especially as a lifelong New Englander, 48 Radcliffe Road began in ice and ended in fire. I guess that houses are like people – some you like and some you don’t like – and once in a while, there is one you love.
Not long after I discovered that old abode would be demolished and a new one put up in its place, I drove up to Woodlawn Cemetery in 2019 on a windswept April morning and decided to view it all from the perspective of my parents’ grave. Where once our house dominated the view from the back of Woodlawn Cemetery, there was now an empty lot of chocolate-brown dirt that stood out like moonscape in contrast to the overarching greenery snaking around it. At that moment, I felt that I had just lost a limb. Of course, 48 Radcliffe Road and I had parted ways before, but it was always temporary. It had stood like a recalcitrant icon years after I had last walked through its timbered hallways. After we moved away, I sometimes found myself aching for its distinctive smells and its numerous crevices.
As I grew older, however, I came to realize that the memories of childhood are the specters that stay with you after you wake. In reality, our house was in the past, much like a breeze that had blown out to sea. Still, it was gone, and the only family residents left of in Wellesley were buried less than a two-minute walk from a place that no longer existed. As I took it all in, I blinked a few tears and then slumped back into my car, grieving for the loss of my parents, my childhood, and the home that had disappeared, like a mystical Brigadoon, into the mist of time.
This past December, when the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the antithesis of Ned Martin as a broadcaster, was the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award and would be inducted in Cooperstown this July, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I ended up smiling, knowing that Ned Martin, the voice of the Boston Red Sox from 1961-92, would have delighted in the irony.
You see, I got to know Mr. Martin very well – despite the fact that I only met him twice in person. His distinctive tenor, reassuring and cerebral, was the second-most heard male voice of my childhood. Only my father’s fixed baritone surpassed his as the soundtrack of my years growing up in the greater Boston area when he broadcast games for 32 seasons in the Hub.
In an age where humility and grace slowly receded from our national character, Martin’s modesty and eloquence separated him from a host of others. He never intentionally developed a defined signature call for a home run. The ball was simply “gone.”
And yet, Ned Martin used words as a composer uses the notes on a scale. He embraced the notion first put forth by Emerson…“that every word was once a poem.” There was nothing ever programmed about him. Cogent phrases seem to tumble from his mouth like falling stars.
Ultimately, Ned Martin was able to frequently quote from the most gifted bards of English literature – Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Hemingway – in order to put the narrative of baseball into its proper context. He was a reader – and he brought a reader’s sensibility to each and every broadcast.
Ned Martin was also a deeply-rooted philosopher. Because he had dipped in the bonfires of hell as a Marine in World War II, Ned described each game as an existentialist. And yet Martin was more than just a baseball announcer. To me, he served as my personal captain, steering me through the choppy waters of both youth and adolescence – guiding, nurturing, and instructing me as I listened intently, his most loyal and devoted student.
28 seasons have come and gone since he last called a Red Sox game on the air. And yet, when I turn on a ballgame these days, it is Ned’s voice that still lingers. On July 22, 2002, he appeared to be his vigorous, cordial self as he participated in the Ted Williams Tribute at Fenway Park.
Less than 24 hours later, he was dead.
While hundreds of players have come and gone since he first began to broadcast for the team in 1961, for many of us, Ned Martin remains the most indispensable Red Sox figure of them all. As former Globe columnist, Bill Griffith, wrote a few years ago: “Today’s broadcasts are slicker and technically superior, but those bygone days were a wonderful time to be a baseball fan in Boston. Long before there was ‘Morgan Magic’ on the field in 1988, there was ‘Martin Magic’ on radio.”
In a storeroom of searing play-by-play moments, the “magic of Ned Martin” was most evident at one of the most culminating historical moments of the 119-year-old franchise, the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox. To appreciate the wizardry of Ned Martin, one only has to review his lucid play-by-play of the final out of a closely-fought contest between the Bosox and the mighty Minnesota Twins in order to demonstrate his luster. Leading 5-3 with two outs in the ninth inning, the Twins manager, Cal Ermer, sent up pinch-hitter Rich Rollins to face Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg.
As always, Ned Martin provided the scene with absolute precision… “Jim Lonborg is within one out….of his biggest victory ever…his twenty-second of the year….and his first over the Twins.” Efficient, accurate, to the point.
He then paused, letting the listener soak in the scene. Like the ancient Greek philosophers, silence was always one of Martin’s most laudable broadcasting attributes.
“The pitch…is looped to shortstop…”
A living and breathing thesaurus, Martin could have used any of a host of words from his prodigious vocabulary, but he chose, “looped.” My father later described Reese’s popup as “a little squirt from the hose.” Looped was an inspired choice, impeccably capturing the bending flight of the ball.
While the Red Sox announcer was also able to inform the listener where the sphere was heading, there was, at first, no intimation in Martin’s tone whether the ball was even going to be caught. Ned Martin would never impulsively rush to judgment. He was, first and foremost, a patient man. To him, fidelity was the antonym of hyperbole.
However, as the ball began to topple, Ned’s voice hurriedly changed; his tenor commenced to soar as he exclaimed, “Petrocelli’s back….” A hint of expectation in Martin’s voice could now be detected. Because Red Sox fans were so used to Ned’s understated demeanor, thousands of New Englanders began to raise their arms in joyous expectation. Ned’s vigor at that instant was authentic. “He’s got it! The Red Sox win!”
Even in the clutches of euphoria, Martin maintained his integrity. The Red Sox win…..win, what? For with that last out, the Red Sox had just tied for the pennant; they would have to wait for the final result of the Tigers-Angels game to determine whether the team would win the American League flag outright – or be forced to play in a one-game playoff against the Detroit nine the following day. Thus, Ned could not confirm anything official … except that the Red Sox had won a consequential ball game.
The Sox radio announcer then took in a breath of air, mostly to observe the players and fans who had instantly enveloped the jubilant Jim Lonborg to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Chaos ensued, but Ned Martin was well-equipped to describe it. He immediately punched out, “And there’s pandemonium on the field!”
The broadcaster could have used havoc, mayhem, commotion, hubbub – but he chose – pandemonium. From the least-used word for bedlam, pandemonium is, according to Webster’s, “An utterly lawless, riotous place or assemblage.” A toss-off line by Ned Martin – “there’s pandemonium on the field” – immediately entered the lexicon for an entire region of baseball fans.
The last ingredient of Martin’s call contained just one word – and a cacophony of elation. Mindful that he was describing the action to a radio audience, Ned paused, and then bleated, “Listen!”
An opus of horns could be heard – the air-kind that were allowed at the time – instruments of exultation that always gave out a piercing glee as they echoed off the peeling walls of the ancient ballpark. The fans’ collective primal-shouting verified Martin’s precise account. The resulting din, deftly recorded by WHDH engineer, Al Walker, was the perfect call to a transcendent baseball moment.
In retrospect, there were two miracles that occurred that long-ago Sunday afternoon: the 100-to-1 shot Red Sox securing the American League Pennant, and Ned Martin’s flawless, 23-second description of the final out of the contest.
I first became aware of Ned Martin in 1964 when I received a new transistor radio for my ninth birthday. As the Red Sox began Spring Training in Scottsdale, Arizona in early March, I began to tune in to the local flagship station at the time, WHDH 850 AM Boston, in order to listen to the handful of Red Sox radio broadcasts emitting from the desert. At the time, Ned Martin was the team’s broadcasting partner supporting the venerable Curt Gowdy, who was already receiving national exposure as NBC’s chief baseball and football anchorman.
From the moment I first heard Ned’s recitations, his unique style was dissimilar in both tone and approach to any other baseball broadcaster at the time. He was cerebral, ironic, expressive, low-key. Even then, I recognized that Ned was a minimalist in a profession where over-the-top enthusiasm was becoming the norm.
Constancy – not exuberance – seemed to be his modus operandus. And yet, despite his tranquil overtones, it was also evident that he had an unadulterated passion for the game. In an interview with The Globe’s Ray Fitzgerald, Martin recalled: “Red Smith used to say he loved `the music of the game.’ What a great line. There is a music to it, whether it’s the first crack of the bat at Winter Haven, a full house on Opening Day, the murmuration of a meaningless game in July, or the buzz you feel at a World Series. There’s orderliness to it as well, with batting practice; fielding practice; all of the things that take place right up to game time. Yet you can still see something in almost every game that you’ve never seen before. That’s the beauty of baseball, I guess. It’s never predictable, even though it never changes.”
It was clearly evident even at first glance that the unspeakable elements of baseball were what mattered to Ned. At first glance, Martin seemed like a seamless violinist, playing each and every note with a heady mixture of exactitude and grace. After I began listening to Ned Martin’s broadcasts, my father stated, “You know, son, you are listening to an authentic master.”
As I continued to soak in each and every one of his broadcasts, Ned’s imposing array of words and phrases that colored each game left a prevailing impression on me. In Martin’s lexis, a baseball might rocket, balloon, soar, sail, glide, dart, float, sputter, plummet, plunge, bound, skip, hop, spring, or dribble. A ferocious swing of the bat by Harmon Killebrew could create “a crosswind in the box seats.” Cleveland’s young pitcher, Luis Tiant, “uncoiled” when he delivered “the confused sphere.” Center-fielder Gary Geiger might “coax the ball down to his glove as if by supplication.” Sox reliever Dick Radatz invariably raised his hands in exultation “after setting down a gaggle of Yankees!”
Longtime Red Sox fan Michael Burns remembers: “Growing up as I did in Worcester, Massachusetts, I’ll never forget some of Ned’s beautiful and apt descriptions such as ‘hung a frozen rope,’ ‘pool-queue shot,’ ‘peeled foul,’ and “the threat goes by the boards” – phrases that filled so many of his broadcasts over the years. Like many of our fellow Red Sox fans of that era, our family would turn the TV sound down and tune in Ned’s radio play-by-play.”
Ned Martin, along with partners Ken Coleman and Mel Parnell in 1967.
Martin’s eloquence had a profound affect on my own emerging sense of language. My neighborhood in Wellesley, the embodiment of the Baby Boomer explosion that was most visible in the early 1960’s, would be the setting for gargantuan baseball games occasionally involving forty or more children. Loquacious and curious, I normally broadcast each game even as I participated in it. Ned Martin’s choice in both syntax and vocabulary slowly became part of my word arsenal. If someone “blistered” the ball between third and short, “skied” to center, “scalded” the ball by the first baseman’s glove, or threw a “laser” to home plate, I would echo Ned’s phrases. As Martin’s words began to fill my summer days with the sounds of the game, the Red Sox announcer began to transform me into a more nimble speaker without me ever realizing it.
As the seasons passed like shuffling cards, I slowly began to absorb a host of literary allusions that made Martin’s narrative brushstrokes even more compelling. One evening, a low-hanging fog shrouded eastern New England, causing the well-lit Fenway Park to appear as a massive firefly in the Back Bay horizon. When the fog continued to encircle the Fens, Ned sighed, “Fog comes/in little cat’s feet.” I glanced up at Mummie who was listening intently to Martin’s words. “CarlSandburg,” she smiled.
Later that year, during a recap of a doubleheader with the White Sox in which Boston impossibly came back to win the first game only to lose the second in heartbreaking fashion, Ned began, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
After I looked at the radio in puzzlement, my father explained, “Mr. Martin is referring to the opening passage of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.”
When the cerebral Elston Howard joined the Red Sox for the pennant drive in 1967, Ned encapsulated Ellie’s prowess as a catcher by quoting Wordsworth: “Wisdom is sometimes nearer when we stoop then when we soar.”
Martin particularly loved to use the words of Shakespeare to help paint the scene for his listeners. Once, when describing Dick Williams’ shrewd managerial moves that had resulted in a dramatic victory for the Boston nine, Ned quoted from The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Why, then the world’s mine oyster/which I with sword will open.”
After some blatant luck – a bad bounce – had afforded the Red Sox with a fortuitous victory during the 1972 season, Martin used the Bard’s words to summarize the game, “And so, ladies and gentlemen, as Shakespeare once wrote, ‘Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.’”
Three years later, when he was teamed with the legendary Jim Woods, the two announcers found themselves in an extra-inning contest in Oakland in which both bullpens were outwardly spent. Martin ended up citing Macbeth: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say, which grain will grow, and which will not, speak then to me.”
Ernest Hemingway was a particular favorite of Ned’s; he seemed to recognize the pathos that swathed the writer’s work. After a series of managerial movements by Don Zimmer seemed to fall flat for the team in a contest with the Orioles in the late seventies, Martin used a noted Hemingway line as the focal point at the conclusion of a post-game summary. “Never confuse movement with action,” Ned whispered as he signed off for the evening.
When we listened at the beach, in our bedrooms, or from our cars to the sage commentary of Ned Martin, we intrinsically recognized that we had in our midst a cerebral reader-baseball announcer, who relished Willie Mays as much as Ernest Hemingway. Over the expanse of the seasons, Ned’s music became the vinyl for my own developing interest in timeless literature. While I struggled as a reader early on, I soon began to tackle the classics, thanks to the inspiration provided by the man behind the Red Sox mike.
The artistry of Ned Martin seemed to soar especially when he was “on the radio side” of the airwaves. The Globe’s Bill Griffith eloquently explained the culture of baseball radio broadcasting before television became king: “TV production and replays were still in relative infancy in those days – and telecasts were mostly limited to weekends – so it was common for Sox fans to have the game on radio. Tales of being able to walk down the street and follow the game from the radios on people’s porches were true. Baseball was a game made for listening on summer nights and for youngsters to follow in the time-honored radio-under-the-pillow manner.”
As the venerable Art Martone wrote in a poignant tribute to Ned in The Providence Journal after Ned died, “Martin’s was the perfect voice for the day-to-day flow of this sport.”
While Ned was both urbane and eloquent, brevity was at the core of his success, a quality that, except for Red Barber and Vin Scully, has never been duplicated by any other baseball announcer. Art Martone lucidly remembered that quality in The Providence Journal:
“He frequently seemed detached from, rather than immersed in, the day-to-day workings of the team and the game . . . and thus was able to provide a context that other announcers could never hope to capture. My favorite Ned Martin call from the 1967 ‘Impossible Dream’ album was not the ‘pandemonium’ clip that everyone’s mentioning today, but from the day before. The Sox were leading the Twins, 3-2, in the eighth inning on Saturday afternoon — remember, they had to win both Saturday and Sunday to stay alive in the race — and Carl Yastrzemski put the game away with a three-run homer off Jim Merritt in the eighth inning. It wasn’t so much the call itself that I liked, but the postscript he added when the cheering began to subside.”
“‘If you’ve just turned your radio on,’ Ned said in a voice tinged with a tiny hint of disbelief, and then he gave just the slightest dramatic pause, ‘it’s happened again. Yastrzemski’s hit a three-run homer, and it’s now 6-2, Red Sox!’”
The one signature call Ned ultimately became famous for, “mercy,” was something that leisurely developed through time. While it often was stated after a particularly imposing homer, strikeout, or fielding play, he also used it an interjection of remorse, regret, even pathos. Irony was alwaysat play when Ned Martin called a game.
In early each Red Sox broadcast, even the most casual of listeners could discern a hint of melancholy in Ned Martin’s voice. While he obviously rooted for the Red Sox, he served as the antithesis of the over-the-top terrain inhabited by the Celtics’ Johnny Most, who called each game as if it were describing the Passion Play. There were even times when Ned would gently hint to his listeners about the possibilities of defeat just as it seemed as if the team was on the cusp of victory.
After 14 seasons broadcasting Red Sox baseball, Ned Martin gained a new broadcasting partner in 1974 with the arrival of Jim “The Possum” Woods. Pugnacious, impulsive, and anecdotal, Woods would serve as a brilliant converse to Martin throughout their five celebrated years together. In Woods’ hale hearty, good fellow world, Ned became Nedly and every topic under the heavens was open for discussion.
Martin especially took great delight in bantering with “The Possum” over his days as the number-two announcer to the longtime Pirates broadcaster, the legendary Bob Prince. Because “The Possum” and the brash Prince were two of the most legendary beer connoisseurs in Major League history, Ned once asked, “Did Budweiser sponsor you, or did you two sponsor Bud?”(My favorite Woods moment occurred in a rain delay in Oakland, when The Possum gushed, “And here into the booth comes six great friends of mine – all of them named Bud!” Martin’s sustained laughter was heard all the way into the commercial break).
Animated and spontaneous, Woods inevitably seemed to always bring out the best in Martin. Listening to two such erudite yet disparate men night after night made the summer months seem more fleeting. Even then, I recognized then that we were steadfastly ensconced in a provisional Golden Era, where names like Martin, Woods, the Gold Dust Twins, Yaz, El Tiante, Rooster, Pudge, and Dewey were firmly embedded in both the hearts and minds of Red Sox Nation.
When two such unswerving iconoclasts were subsequently ordered to promote the sponsors’ products more vociferously on the air, Martin and Woods ultimately balked, resulting in their collective dismissals at the end of the 1978 season. While Ned was eventually rehired as NESN’s principal baseball announcer, Jim Woods was not. As Art Martone reflected in The Providence Journal: “Ned Martin’s strengths became less and less important to the radio industry as it evolved from what it was in the 1960s to what it is today. ‘Quiet and intelligent’ doesn’t play over the airwaves these days; modern radio execs like shrillness and hysteria. His profession changed, and Ned Martin couldn’t — or wouldn’t — change with it.”
Ultimately, Ned Martin would serve as the Red Sox television announcer for another 14 seasons before being summarily dismissed at the end of the 1992 season. While there were pockets of brilliance throughout his telecasts, his discreet eloquence often fell flat in the visual realm of television. He sometimes seemed confused as to whether he should fill the silence with prose. It was as if Bobby Orr was restricted from ever crossing the red line.
By his last year with the Sox, 1992, baseball and television had resolutely entered the age of Sportscenter, in-your-face journalism, and enduring union-owner-agent greed. At the time, Ned seemed slightly anachronistic, a gentleman in a society of “me-firsts.” In Bill Griffith’s accolade to Martin in The Globe, his last TV partner, Jerry Remy, talked about Martin’s contentious dismissal: ‘“Ned was sad the last week of that season because he’d learned that NESN wasn’t going to bring him back for the next year. And I knew they were afraid he might say something on the air. There was no chance of that. Not surprisingly, he went out with dignity and class.’”
Ned Martin subsequently retired to Clarksville, Virginia where he spent time with his beloved wife, Barbara, a bevy of dogs, and his cat, Emily. While we in Red Sox Nation occasionally heard his tranquil, reassuring voice from his new outpost via the talk show circuit, he seemed at peace in his new surroundings, a fitting closing act for a serene man.
In 2001, Ned Martin was both astonished and stirred when he was named to the Red Sox Hall of Fame. At the reception that year, he received the most vigorous and sustained ovation of any recipient. On July 22, 2002, Martin attended the Ted Williams Tribute at Fenway Park, where he interviewed old friend, Carl Yastrzemski, the other Sox legend who debued with the team 41 years previously. The next afternoon, Ned died of a massive coronary at the Raleigh-Durham airport, a few miles from his home.
Serendipitously, his last public appearance had been on the infield at Fenway as a blinding sun sheltered the park from the unforgiving dimness of night. The night after he died, I was reminded of a broadcast that Martin made two decades previously on the last day of the 1989 season. As dusk descended over the field, Ned ended the broadcast thusly: “The game is over, the lights are dimming, winter is approaching, and it’s time to go home. And so from Fenway Park this is Ned Martin, farewell for now.”
In the final analysis, the great Ned Martin incessantly stressed the enduring narrative of life through the potent medium of sports broadcasting. From his lens, the seasons ran together like an impressionist painting. Over time, they became chapters in a book that seemed to accentuate the same recurring theme over and over again even as hundreds of players entered and exited the tale like apparitions in a drawn-out war.
But Ned Martin was more than just an invaluable bard – he was also a master-teacher. Ultimately, he served as a mentor to thousands of New Englanders who faithfully listened to his broadcasts year after year. Without knowing it, he not only vastly extended our vocabularies, but instilled in many of us an infatuation for language that stuck with us long after he broadcast his last game for the Boston nine. Mr. Martin provided countless baseball fans with a landscape of metaphor and simile that enabled us to apply the gift of comparative language to own lives as both speakers and writers.
For me, Ned Martin gave me a focal point, a purpose, a sense of the possibilities, a future. Over the past 40 years, I have entered my classroom each and every day as his undisclosed yet grateful apprentice, efficiently equipped to provoke and kindle my students with the same elixir of perspicuity and insight that he first used on me four decades ago. After all, I became an English teacher because of Ned Martin. Early on in my professional career, my first headmaster asked me, “Shaun, who most influenced you to become an educator?”
I gazed out my classroom window as the trees began to sway in rhythm. I looked back at him and whispered, “Ned Martin.”
Sadly, however, I never had the chance to say “thank you” to him. “Regrets are as personal as fingerprints,” sighed Hemingway after the death of Scott Fitzgerald. Because Mr. Martin seemed eternally vigorous, I always thought that there would be time to drop him a note that would convey to Ned how much he meant to me – and to us. Unfortunately, this little essay will have to suffice.
In a lovely piece entitled, “A Day of Light and Shadow,” first published 42 years ago in Sports Illustrated, acclaimed musicologist Jonathan Schwartz wrote,“Ned Martin is as articulate and creative a sportscaster as there is in the country. He is often poetic and moving. ‘The Yankee score is up,’ Ned observed late last in September from Toronto, where scores remained only momentarily on the electric board. ‘Soon it too will be gone,’ he continued in his usual quiet tone. ‘It will flash away like a lightening bug into the chilly Canadian night.’”
In my mind, the poignancy – the vulnerability – that sometimes crept into his broadcasts, made Ned even more endearing in the end. Perhaps this was all because he had experienced the horrors of war as a Marine in the South Pacific. Three days after Martin died, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann wrote: ”He was a subtle, controlled, educated man, from Duke via Iwo Jima. His favorite on-air expression of surprise or delight was `Mercy,’ and in a summer in which we have lost Jack Buck, Darryl Kile, Irv Kaze, Ted Williams, and Jim Warfield, that quote from Hamlet, which Ned Martin always invoked in times of crisis seems all too tearfully appropriate: ‘When sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions.”’
An unfussy romantic, Martin often used musical allusions to describe the choreography of baseball. The game had a certain rhythm and Ned was most cognizant of its nature, the season, and the fixed beat that seemed to slowly dissipate as fall began to envelop our region.
During an extended rain delay in Cleveland in the mid-seventies, Ned and his compadre, Jim Woods, impulsively began to discuss their own favorite musical numbers over the years. Suddenly, as if on a dare, Martin began to croon out the old Kurt Weill classic, “The September Song,” a standard that his beloved Sinatra had once sung so well. As Martin began to sing, I instantly recognized that I was getting a rare glimpse into the soul of an introvert:
For it’s a long, long time
From May to December
And the days grow short
When you reach September
And the autumn weather
Turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game
As the days dwindle down
To a precious few
And these few precious days
I’ll spend with you
These golden days
I’ll spend with you.
From 1961 to 1992, we were fortunate to have spent a plethora of golden days with Ned Martin as we listened to him artfully describe the daily episodes of a team that truly mattered to us all in the end. Despite the dark clouds that sometimes rolled inside of him, Martin was able to emit a prevailing luminosity that was able to cut through the shadows of our own lives. The best Boston sportscaster of them all showed us the way even as he guided us through the haze of the seasons.
There is an old proverb that states, “Power lasts ten years; influence not more than a hundred.” While no Baseball Hall of Fame induction seems in the cards for him – he would surely love the incongruity of that – Ned Martin’s influence remains a part of me every time I teach. More importantly, the music that he made for millions of Red Sox fans who came to depend on his illuminating, lyrical voice is worth far more than any bronze plaque hung in some squared, dimly-lit hallway in Upstate New York.
“Back in 1899/When everybody sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’/A hundred years took a long,long time/For every boy and girl/Now there’s only one thing to know/Where did the twentieth century go?/I swear it was here just a minute ago/All over this world.” – Steve Goodman, “The Twentieth Century’s Almost Over,” 1977
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979. I gather my yellow legal pad and pen and smile as a compact, amicable young man sits down across from me. He is both energized and dehydrated after an hour’s performance and gulps several glasses of seltzer-water as he answered my question between mouthfuls of refreshment. As we sit down at an oversized maple sideboard, a gaggle of devoted members of the audience approach the young man, asking him for an autograph. He makes small talk with each of them, and signs his name, Steve Goodman, on assorted pages of the Living Section of a discarded Boston Globe.
At the time, I well knew the young performer’s music. Nine years previously, Steve Goodman had composed an American musical classic, “The City of New Orleans” – “the best damn train song ever written,” John Prine had gushed when he first heard it. It was Arlo Guthrie’s popular version of the ballad, which made it a cash-cow for the Chicagoan ever since. Throughout the 1970’s, Goodman had subsequently composed indelible memorable tunes for such musical luminaries as Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Emmylou Harris. While his own cult status was mostly limited to the East Coast and his native Midwest, nevertheless, Steve Goodman had culled an enthusiastic and loyal following.
Steve and I ended up talking about the unforgiving entertainment industry, his recent Grammy for acoustic-guitar performing, and why he had unfairly remained a footnote rather than a star in the musical world.
Just before it was time for his second set, I asked Goodman a final question: “Why would you write and record a song about the end of the Twentieth Century when we have nearly a fifth of the century yet to go?”
The singer-songwriter smiled for a minute and then stated, “You know, there’s an answer to that which I will tell you after my set is over. Okay?”
“For sure,” I replied. Goodman then hopped up onto the stage.
“Does anyone remember the Great Depression?
I read all about it in True Confessions
Sorry, I was late for the recording session
But somebody put me on hold;
Has anyone seen my linoleum floors, petroleum jelly –
And two world wars?
They got stuck in the revolving door –
All over this world.”
Even thought he was barely 30 years old at the time, Steve Goodman recognized that time didn’t march on like some interminable battalion. Instead, it seemed to stealthily tiptoe on its own variable pace. As the singer-songwriter himself wrote, “All we have left are those memories/That are most deserving to recall.” It was obvious that Steve Goodman believed that fervently.
Exactly 40 years after I spoke with the seasoned musical performer in Cambridge, I found myself reminiscing with a twenty-something faculty member at school about the first “Armistice Day” Parade I attended as a six-year-old in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I smiled when I recalled my father, still young and vibrant, marching with a legion of his fellow World War II veterans. At the front of the parade, however, strode a beaming nonagenarian who still had a pronounced spring in his steps. I soon learned from my mother that he was a cavalryman in the Spanish American War. We showered him with hosannas as he passed by our perch near the Wellesley Town Hall. When I shared this antidote with my fledgling English teacher-friend, she looked at me with amazement. “Good God,” she sighed.
My late mother seemed to comprehend the essence of time and its bridge-like effect when, one day, she asked me to shake her hand. I then looked at her with puzzlement. She paused and then exclaimed, “When I was a little girl, my Great Uncle John Whiting purposely shook my hand and said, ‘Now you’ve shaken the hand of someone who fought at the Battle of Antietam.” Mummie then smiled at me and bellowed, “So you too can now say that you’ve shaken the hand of someone who shook the hand of a relative who fought in the Civil War!”
I then recalled that when I was a little boy, I used to cuddle next to my grandmother and ask her what life was like in “the old days.” She talked to me about horse-drawn milk carts, the fabled Blizzard of 1896, the brilliance of the night sky before Edison. To me, it seemed as if she had lived an eternity.
Now I know differently. When I took my oldest son to Fenway Park for the first time in 2003, Max asked me why the aisles and seats in the old ballpark were so narrow. “Because Fenway was built in 1912,” I replied. “It was designed for nineteenth-century bodies. People were much smaller back then. Our diets increased and improved over the years.”
Towards the end of the game, I glimpsed at one of the seats and imagined my grandmother, a tiny, fragile figure, a remnant of the 1800’s, sitting in her chair – quite comfortably – rooting for Cy Young and Babe Ruth in Red Sox uniforms.
“Winter’s getting colder, summer’s getting hotter
Our wishing well’s wishing for another drop of water
Mother Earth’s blushin’ cause somebody caught her
Making loving to the man in the moon.
Now how are you going to keep them
Down on the farm
Now that outer space has lost its charm?
Somebody just set off the burglar alarm
And not a moment too soon.”
Because of modern time’s population explosion, more than three-fifths of all human beings who ever lived were born in the past eight decades. Consequently, people did more living in this time period than in all the other centuries combined. On the downside, more humans died in war from 1914-1975 than in the previous thirty centuries of human existence. In contrast, billions of people live more substantive, energetic, healthy lives than ever before. Names, places, items, art, music, linguistic expressions, and fads – even nations and their governments – have come in and out of our lives like passing ships.
To those who lived through the past seven decades, the progress we have observed has been incalculable. In 1961, for instance, the United States launched its first astronaut into the cosmos, Navy Commander Alan Shepard. His Mercury 7 spacecraft spent just 15 minutes in space before splashing down in the Atlantic. A Mickey Mantle popup went higher than Al Shepard, quipped comedian Shelley Berman at the time. Just eight years later, three American pioneers ventured 226,000 miles into deep space, landed on the moon, and returned safely to Earth. Last week, I asked my eighth-graders how many of them had ventured to at least two continents in their short lives. Virtually everyone had. The new generation have become world-travelers as a matter of course.
Still, there are detriments to such progress. If modern times were given a motto which could capture the previous one hundred years, it would be… “With Progress – Nothing Lasts.” Consequently, each decade seems to be its own Brigadoon; it dissolves into the mist – never to be seen again. As those of us who have lived through the Twentieth Century know, the 1950’s were an extraordinarily different time from the 1990’s. We almost could have been living in different centuries. For most of the history of the world, however, progress was hardly noticeable. People perished in the same spot they were born in. For years, I taught a searing historical novel to sixth-graders called The Borning Room. It centered on the room off the kitchen where members of the same family were born, were sick, had children, and died as old folks in the same room. The only thing that changed was their age.
In our modern world, though, if one moves away from his or her hometown and returns ten years later, the place is hardly recognizable. Even change in the workplace is both exhausting and whimsical. In 1984, I began teaching with an authentic educational mentor, Mrs. Edith Whelden, who started toiling at The Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts, the week after the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began. When she finally retired as a teacher in 1987 – Edith was a staple at the school for 48 years – she chuckled as she mimeographed her last math handout: “I began my first day getting purple on my hands, and here I am nearly 50 years later still getting purple on my hands!”
Like Edith Wheldon, I began with mimeograph-purple ink on my hands, but that was scores of changes ago. Today, I use Google Classroom, a SmartBoard M600, and a Lenovo PC as my teaching weapons by choice and decree. Edith Whelden’s professional career was framed within the context of a three-mile an hour world. In comparison, mine has been at Mach 1 speed. In the end, life today is not written in granite but in ever-changing sand. No wonder a lot of us have been clinging to the past.
“Old Father Time has got his toes a tappin’
Standin’ in the window grumblin’ and rappin’
Everybody’s waiting for something to happen,
Tell me if it happens to you.
The Judgement Day is getting nearer
There it is in the rearview mirror!
If you could duck down, I could see a little clearer –
All over this world.”
With the Cambridge audience singing and clapping along, Steve Goodman completed his second and final set singing the refrain of “The Twentieth Century’s Almost Over.” He then shouted out to the Passim crowd: “Let’s celebrate before it becomes passe!” Everyone instantly laughed and gave him a heartfelt standing ovation. Steve walked off the stage and motioned for me to join him at his table once again.
After he had drank a quart of fresh water, Goodman remarked to me: “Shaun, you asked me why I wrote ‘Twentieth Century’ with 23 years left in the 1900’s? I composed it because you never know if you are going to be around for such an event; you could drop dead at any moment. There have been so many crazy things that have happened our time, despicable, head-scratching things. That said, everything that I have ever loved in this world also existed during this time. When the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2000, there will be a lot to say goodbye to then. Don’t you think?” The performer shook my hand briskly and then disappeared into his dressing room.
I did not know then that he was undergoing extensive chemotherapy in that fall in 1979. He would live five more years and die, much too young at 36, a victim of leukemia. Thus, Steve Goodman would not live to see the ticking of the millennium clock in Times Square on January 1, 2000.
For the past few weeks, I have thought about Steve Goodman. I have also thought about the scores of people who ended up touching my soul through the past 65 years. Many of them have passed on; many are still a vibrant presence in my life. All of us, however, are rooted in the times we experienced together.
Recently, when I visited my hometown, Wellesley, Massachusetts, I ended up walking around the local graveyard, Woodlawn Cemetery, as tranquil and beautiful a resting-place as there is in New England. I stopped and reflected at the gravesites of friends who died too young in car crashes, cancer, or various addictions. I paid my respects to a host of family and friends who had encouraged me as a child. I paused at the monuments of teachers who had seen something in me that I hadn’t recognized previously. I even weeded the grounded nameplate of one of my loyal customers when I was a bag-boy at the Wellesley Super Market. Unlike her venerated daughter, Sylvia, whose tombstone in England is an iconic spot for thousands who visit it each year, Aurelia Plath’s memorial has been untouched since I last weeded it the previous year.
As I turned the far corner of the cemetery, I stopped at a final resting-place, my parents’ gravesite, which overlooked the site of our family’s old house on adjacent Radcliffe Road. Suddenly, I could hear my parents ghostly laughter. After all, here was their youngest child standing above them now as an old man. “Welcome to the fold!” they seemed to say. “Enjoy it all while you can, and remember – enjoy the ride! After all, you’ll never know when it will end.”
As Steve Goodman told me during his interview with me forty-one years ago this month, “Our time here on Earth is the connective tissue for us all. That is why we should never forget that we’re all in this thing called life together.”
As Virgil once wrote: Omne momentum rei est pretiosum, habens in essentia finis. (Every moment is a precious thing, having in it the essence of finality.)
It is precisely 7:30 am on the stove clock as I open the screen porch abutting our kitchen. I traipse through our porch, wrapped in a massive Boston Red Sox towel. I then maneuver down the wooden steps towards the base of our outdoor shower less than ten feet away.
From early April to Columbus Day Weekend, I have taken scores of showers here. However, on this mid-October day, it’s getting colder, and the fall weather is getting too brisk for both bodies and water pipes. Thus, this will be my last outdoor shower of the year. In the distance behind our house, an abandoned nest of a family of ospreys, who deserted their salt marsh home the previous month, now lies vacant. To me, this is a tangible reminder that change is the essential ingredient to any New England season.
As I alight our stone steps, I quickly open the latch of the shower and clamber inside, hanging my towel up carefully on a hook on the left side of the structure. Four stately scrub pines frame the cobalt sky above their finger-limbs, brushing back and forth from a relentless east wind. The sun creeps across the marsh and makes splotches on the rust-colored pod that forms our outdoor shower.
As I take off the last of my undergarments, a chilling wind cuts through me like a knife, a calling card that another Massachusetts winter is fast approaching. As I turn the nozzle to the left for “high heat,” the caw-caw cry of a recalcitrant crow greets me with a reassuring defiance. His hubris reminds me that it is I who am the visitor on my own property.
Steam commences arising from the shower as I begin to lather myself under a beckoning sun. I am suddenly enveloped in its prevailing warmth, which staves off the biting, 50 degree-temperature morning that had greeted me. The mid-autumn sky is cleansed to such a degree that it seems as if God Himself washed away any shadows.
As I continue to soak my hair, the blustery, chick-a-dee-dee-dee call from the lowest branch of a nearby red maple from an adult chickadee welcomes me like an old friend. I smile when I remember that I once fed many of this little bandit’s ancestors as a boy. I would place sunflower seeds in my outstretched right hand and then watch as a small flock of “the cheeky ones” picked them off my palm in a series of fearsome swoops,
As I finish rinsing, I then glance out at the salt marsh to my right and see the golden colors of the marsh blend with the blueberry-colored water of the North Atlantic that has seeped in with the tide. In another two hours, the entire marsh will be flooded by water pouring in from Cape Cod Bay. Above the ocean-swamp, I eventually observe a colony of seagulls begin to pounce on some unsuspecting minnows. A few of them dangle in the mouths of the gulls, who dart away from the scene with a nonchalant stance that is almost breathtaking.
Even though the water for our shower is from our own well and doesn’t cost me a thing, I firmly twist the handle to the left. As the son of an environmentalist-mother who donated the adjacent salt marsh to the Eastham Conservation Foundation, I have been taught that nature is not a place to visit. It is home.
For the next five months, my showers will be upstairs and indoors until the season of new life – spring – visits this fragile outpost once again.
The Boat Meadow Salt Marsh at high tide from our “backyard.” It flows out to Cape Cod Bay, less than a mile from this point.
In the days of yore, before Smartphones and Instagram, as many as 70 children would play heightened games of hide-and-go-seek in my old neighborhood in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Ultimately, those spring and summer afternoons 50 years ago not only framed our childhoods but taught us a myriad of life lessons as time unfolded like pages in a novel.
Originating in Great Britain hundreds of years ago, the childhood game was eventually brought over to the colonies during the 1600’s. By happenstance, each corner of the British Isles formed its own version of hide-and-go-seek, initially called, “All-ee, Outs in Free.” This was a euphemistic call from the person who was “it,” and letting those hiding children, otherwise known as “the outs” that it was now safe to come back to home base.
Even as the game evolved along with the English language, local town criers, most notably in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, commenced calling out the phrase, “All-Ye, All-Ye,” meaning to beware of the information the crier was about to proclaim to the townspeople. Accordingly, when Irish, Scots, and Welsh immigrants emigrated to the New World and brought their language and traditions with them, “Ollie Ollie In Come Free” became Americanized over time as the password to use to reconvene in games of hide-and-go-seek.
As a child in the 1960’s, I regularly participated in this time-honored contest in the tree-lined community where I grew up, Wellesley, Massachusetts. At the apogee of the historic Baby Boom, this most communal of games formed our own twentieth-century, social-media platform. Because of the vast amount of children being born in Eisenhower America, a local developer, Ralph Porter, constructed four and five bedroom houses during the winter of ’55 on a 1/2 mile road, which meandered, like all New England streets do, by rock, whim, and angle. Our family moved into our brand-new dwelling at 48 Radcliffe Road on April 30, 1955 – when I was a little more than three months old. Exactly a decade later, 109 children between the ages of 1 and 17 inhabited the 29 homes on our street.
One of our senior neighbors, who resided at the corner of Hobart and Radcliffe, often complained about the battalion of youngsters who would file in groups of 15 or so, treading together en masse to school. “Here come those damn kids!” he would yaw as the offending children formed a movable Jersey Barrier, trekking down the street in sync. I was terrified of his cantankerousness at the time, but these days, I can only smile. I guess the wondrous thing about growing older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve experienced in life.
Back then, of course, our childhoods were largely autonomous. If afternoon or summer jobs did not govern us because we were too young at the time, we were only obligated to show up at our houses for both lunch and then dinner. For as much as nine hours during the day, we were blissfully on own. Our parents, who had been framed by the Great Depression and World War II, believed both in fresh air and little adult interference. In a world where there were only four television channels available, all we had was each other.
That proved to be more than enough.
Because we instinctively intermingled like a gaggle of geese, we knew each other’s quirks, qualities, and foibles. We even recognized the distinctive clang of each family’s dinner bell. “Time to go home for supper, Art, Anne, Charlie, and Jeannie!” we would bark when the Garrity’s chime would ring out. (Sometimes, even their dog, Sam, would venture home at the sound of the bell). My own dinner signal was the Town of Wellesley’s idiosyncratic fire whistle, which would habitually blow from our community’s firehouse at precisely 5:45 each evening. It’s deep-throated crescendo still throbs in my memory even though it made its last appearance in town many years ago.
While we all experienced some nicks and bruises along the way, our Greatest Generation parents believed that you only came home during the day if you were bleeding. My tough-as-nails mother was typical of the kind of “suck-it-up” attitude that prevailed among the adults on the street. As I joked years later, if Mum had been in Dealey Plaza when JFK was shot, she would have told him to walk it off.
Ultimately, we kiddies played together all day and into the evening on weekends. When school was in session, we would inevitably walk together to our various schools. For six years, for example, Brian Fay and I routinely trudged to either the junior high or high school in concert. If the timing was right, we would then be joined by neighbors Jay and Sally McCreery, Peter Reed, Charlie and Ann Garrity, and Wendy and Holly Seiler. By the time we reached Hobart Road, Phil Carens might amble out, sleepy-eyed but still rarin’ to go. By that time, we might have as many as a dozen kids with us. To us, security was omnipresent; there was always safety in numbers. We felt both unquestionably safe and alive. The vast majority of us believed that childhood was the kingdom where nobody died.
Like most kids back then, sports remained the epicenter of our neighborhood lives and followed the course of seasons without exception. We played touch football in the fall; street hockey and basketball during the winter and spring seasons, and baseball or whiffleball during the summer.
This beehive of sports activity depended upon geography and circumstance. Hockey and baseball were played first at the Patrick’s at 49 Radcliffe Road, but when they moved to California in 1965, both playing fields were shifted to the Fay’s next door. Football was reserved for the Sullivan’s front yard up the street. Because we had the best hoop and the flattest driveway, my brother and I hosted countless games of basketball over the years. There was only one problem – an overhanging tree limb that often blocked players’ shots to the basket. When that occurred, we would roar, “Blocked by Cliff Branch!” – as in the then-famed wide-receiver for the Oakland Raiders.
Because it was our house and our driveway, I began to practice how to make an inconceivable bank shot off the storm window of my parents’ bathroom window and into the net. After a ridiculous investment of trial-by-error practice, I ended up getting pretty good at it by the time I was 10. Because there were so many youngsters to compete with at the time, I was continuously seeking the ultimate home-court advantage.
Within the confines of Radcliffe Road, my family was known as the “White Kellys,” because our dwelling was painted white with dark green shutters. Residing next to us, however, were the “Red Kellys,” a family whose house was decidedly scarlet. A palpable rivalry ensued within the neighborhood community where kids eventually had to take sides in a world where there were no shades of gray. We had the Fays and the Patricks, for instance, firmly entrenched with us. Our weapon of choice, of course, were the bountiful amount of crabapples that fell on both of our properties and the surrounding environs. At the time, I assumed that our little rivalry was, at best, provincial. Consequently, I was astonished when a friend from Elmwood Road, more than three miles away, asked me if I was a White Kelly or a Red Kelly. I guess controversy traveled long and far in those days.
Situated in the Fuller Brook section of Wellesley, Radcliffe Road buttressed the western end of Wellesley’s prominent cemetery, Woodlawn. Hence, when one of us observed a hearse from either Waterman’s or Leo J. Doherty’s, our town’s two principal funeral homes, creep slowly down adjacent Brook Street, the word would soon spread: “There’s gonna be a funeral today.” For the vast majority of neighborhood kids, including my brother, Mark, this was a manifestly undesirable event, and they stayed well clear of such proceedings.
However, there were a few of us who were well…intrigued. After a service was over, we would subsequently hide in the trees or even behind gravestones and watch a myriad of Woodlawn employees do their thing. We were there for the entire process – from the mechanical shovel that scooped out the earth to the installation of the cement casing to the subsequent lowering of the casket into the ground. In the summertime, these same workers would meticulously place artificial grass over the soil and then move to their next assignment.
Usually, the entire job would take several hours. The most haunting part of the process – and I mean that in the most literal sense – would transpire during the lull of the proceedings when the men would take their lunch breaks. In the meantime, the deceased’s coffin would lie on top of the ground like a discarded camp trunk – waiting to be buried for all of eternity.
As a couple of us hid behind two headstones, one of us would whisper to the other with a heady mixture of glee and horror, “Are you brave enough to sprint to that casket and tag it?” Even the thought of doing it so horrified us that it gave us nightmares, but that was all part of the charm.
Of course, the head “cemetery man” knew all about we neighborhood kids who liked to play on Woodlawn’s property. Thus, he was forever threatening to call the police whenever children were playing on a human-made hill owned by Woodlawn. Over time, this singular mound of soil, which sloped down at a gradual incline like a bunny-trail ski slope, reached more than thirty feet into the sky. Because virtually all of our dads were World War II veterans, the massive pile took on much greater proportions in our prodigious imaginations. Ultimately, it became the foundational site for an ongoing neighborhood version of the Battle of the Bulge. One enterprising Radcliffe boy, Mark Fuller, brazenly announced one day that he was a five-star general. We immediately gave in to such sweeping ambition.
Before the hill was removed bit-by-bit by the late ’60’s, we played “war” on it for hours, especially on weekends. This turned out to be our introduction to politics, negotiation, and psychology. Predictably, we were always trying to look for an angle. On one occasion, when we were ensconced in a protracted battle with the Red Kellys, I intuitively slid around their house, hid in the bushes at the base of their porch, and overheard their secret plans to take over “Fortress Fuller” on “Cemetery Hill.” When I reported back to General Fuller, he broke into an Eisenhower-like grin and then slapped me on the back, bellowing, “You’ll be decorated for this!”
During the dog days of summer in pre-air-conditioning America, there were times we didn’t want to cavort too much, and so we essentially stayed put on such searing days. Consequently, we invented a little town of our own at the top of the street in a chunk of semi-woods, which we named, “Pinecone Village.” We each made a tiny home and played out our childhood loves by “coupling” with someone who would then share our little domicile for the summer. Thus, neighbor Holly Seiler became my first wife.
When winter visited in the days before global warming, we sometimes had as much as 100 inches or more of snow. Therefore, we had two options for sledding. The Sullivans had a decent slope at the end of the street adjacent to Brook Street, not far from Pinecone Village. However, because Radcliffe Road had one of the steepest hills in all of Wellesley, we usually blocked off the street with a concoction of both toys and rakes. Those of us with either sleds or toboggans would then commence at the Garrity’s house and coast to a stop near Steve Woodward’s abode at the bottom of the street – an eighth-of-a-mile away. While I almost bought the farm one February day when I nearly smashed my sled into a fire hydrant near the Pelles’s house, I eventually plowed my little flyer against the base of an offending boxwood shrub.
However, despite all of our activities involved in everything from war to street hockey, it was our gargantuan games of hide-and-go-seek, which proved to be the single most inclusive activity of them all. We never had less than 30 participants; occasionally, we might have many as 70, if we included the kids from Hobart and Southgate roads.
Typically, we would convene at the top of Radcliffe adjacent to the telephone pole by the Haley’s house and take up “sides.” For the next two-to-three hours, we would use all of our acumen to avoid getting caught. The game would subsequently end not with one side necessarily winning but the various family bells ringing out for dinner. Our designated rendezvous point turned out to be the stately telephone pole by the Haley’s house at the top of our street’s elongated hill. Over the years, you could witness scores of Radcliffe Road children pressing their little hands against the brown-stained wood and then wailing out into the abyss, “OLLIE OLLIE IN COME FREE!”
When I think back on this most communal of games these days, I now recognize that we played hide-and-go-seek unreservedly, with unfettered glee, and without any hidden agenda. Five decades later, virtually every memory of it is a blur, except for one triumphant contest. It occurred thanks to the near cataclysmic Cuban Missile Crisis. Because we has been “this close” to a nuclear holocaust, the Haley’s hired a local firm to construct a well-fashioned bomb shelter in their backyard.
Thus, it didn’t take long for Dougie Haley and me to come up with an epiphany. One blistering day during the summer of ’63, we ended up hiding in the family’s bomb shelter for more than three hours. Nobody could find us. In the meantime, we were safe from both Nikita Khrushchev and our neighborhood pals. For one brief and shining moment in our childhoods, we were the kings of the neighborhood. Because of Dougie’s and my sagacity, however, the Haley’s bomb shelter was deemed “out of bounds” thereafter.
The last time we all participated in a massive Radcliffe Road hide-and-go-seek game occurred during the early evening the day after I graduated from Wellesley High School in June 1973. Our neighbors hosted a block-party on the street for the six of us who had just graduated. After the cookout ended, my old pal and fellow graduate, Doug Haley, convinced all of us to play one last game of hide-and-seek. Virtually everyone eagerly joined in the fray, which went on well into the dark.
Two months later, I left for college.
On June 1, 2019, I visited my old neighborhood in Wellesley when I went back to speak at the memorial service for a beloved high school teacher. The day before, Mrs. Betty Fay, the matriarch of Radcliffe Road, had finally passed on at 97. Her seven children, my childhood chums, had all ventured back home, mostly from the West, for her funeral. When I entered their familiar house that day, we literally fell into each other’s arms. I hadn’t seen many of the Fay children for decades, but it didn’t matter. We still knew and loved each other to our very cores. As Nancy Fay exclaimed, “We had seven children in our family, but we really had about 50 siblings.”
When her younger sister, Betsy, asked me about the last time I had seen her mother, I smiled, “Last year! I was in the neighborhood, and I observed that the kitchen light was on, and so I knocked on the door. When your Mom saw me, she chirped, ‘Oh, Shaun – come on in!’ – as if it was 1965.”
We all had a good laugh at that one.
I also shared with them the last time I conversed with their father, Jim Fay before he died in 1995. As we sat out in his beloved indoor porch, Mr. Fay remarked, “You know, Shaunie, when you kids were out there playing on the street, to me it was the best sound imaginable.”
“Yes, it was, Mr. Fay,” I replied, and we both blinked away a few tears.
When I was then introduced to one of Fay spouses, she asked me in total innocence, “Are you a Red Kelly or a White Kelly?” The story had been passed on to her. And here I was a living and breathing White Kelly who had come back to the golden street once again.
After we spent an hour reminiscing about our communal childhoods, one of the Fay children, Betsy, who was now 61 years old, exclaimed, “How lucky we were that we all grew up together!” I smiled and agreed heartily with Bets. In hindsight, our inadvertent gathering was nothing less than a family reunion.
Before I left Radcliffe Road that day, I ventured up-and-down the old street for a spell. As I paraded from the remains of Pinecone Village to the old Woodward house, I realized that this particular spot on earth was still my epicenter. Eventually, I stopped at the telephone pole by the Haley’s house, leaned against it, and then murmured to myself, “Ollie Ollie In Come Free.”
Needless to say, no child came scurrying from stately bushes, majestic trees, or even discarded bomb shelters to join me at the old upright. In reality, the silence was mostly complete except for the infallible New England wind, which blew memories in swirls as I pressed my hand against the pole one last time.
In memory of the few of us from the old neighborhood who have died much too young – Holly Seiler, Steve Woodward, and Bobby Haley – and for a few guardian angel parents who were always there for us – Jim and Betty Fay, Lynn and Bernice Patrick, and Larry and Laurie Kelly.
While I have been blessed in my life to have met a former Beatle; three US Presidents; a British Prime Minister; a Nobel Prize winner; and two Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients; the greatest thrill for me occurred when I greeted Apollo II’s Buzz Aldrin in September 2010 when he spoke to our Middle School students for 45 riveting minutes. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo II moonwalk this week, how terrific that both Mike Collins and Buzz are still with us! As a lifelong space junkie, the original Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts have always been monumental heroes to me.
When Mr. Aldrin spoke to us nine years ago, he reminded us that NASA was a collective effort on more than 600,000 Americans. “Neil Armstrong and I were the ones who got credit,” he said, “but it was the ultimate ‘group effort’.” He then winked at the kids and laughed, “Remember, there’s no I in the word, team!”
In retrospect, when President John F. Kennedy committed our nation to go to the moon in 1961, the top tax rate in the United States was at 91 percent. When Apollo 11 landed eight years later, it was at 77 percent. Fifty years later, we “can’t afford to pay for anything.”
Um, yes, we can. Our current mission, if enough Americans accept the overwhelming evidence of science, is to curb climate change. Therefore, our next moon mission should be right here at home. We need to collectively solve global warming before we leave this fragile planet uninhabitable. We can do it. As JFK said so convincingly 58 years ago, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
During a fifteen-minute break from working at a local market after school each day in 1971, I used to dart to the local record store and peer at the oversized display window for the latest LP releases. Like countless adolescents who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, album art back then invariably piqued my interest. After all, it was the initial artistic expression of the music that lay inside of each record jacket. At the time, a long-playing record cover measured 12.3 inches squared. Thus, how an album was marketed mattered a lot to nearly everyone. As former Columbia Records President Don Ienner revealed to me years later: “In 1964, when Capitol (Records) marketed the Beatles’ first LP release in the US with the black-and-white photo montage for their American début, Meet the Beatles, that LP-cover sold thousands of more records. Of course, it was a brilliant marketing ploy.”
Thus, when I sprinted to my local record store during a work break In September 1971, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the latest album that was featured in the front window of the Music Box in Wellesley, Massachusetts. There, prominently displayed so that all could see it was a record cover that was so distinctive, surreal, and hypnotic that I was instantly mesmerized. The Moody Blues, the album read at the top, and then the age-old, mystifying, Anglo-Saxon aphorism, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.
With artwork by contemporary English artist, Phil Travers, the lettering, Bocklin – comparable to Expo today – was based on a typeface design initially introduced by the Otto Weisert foundry of Stuttgart, Germany in 1904. The assumption, of course, was that the archetypal music buyer would be pushed to believe that the music within the enchanted record jacket would also contain 42 minutes of wonder.
I immediately plunged into the music store, purchased the LP, and returned to work, counting off the minutes until I could barge home and give it a listen. As an unequivocal fan of the Moody Blues since the 1967 release of their groundbreaking album, Days of Future Passed, I knew that this could be another precarious endeavor by a band that specialized in transcendence.
Because of the theatrical, ethereal, and almost childlike virtuousness of their multi-dimensional series of concept albums that framed the Moody Blues from 1968-73, more than a few rock fans during that time dismissed them as cosmic lightweights. To most of my hard-rock friends back then, the Moodies were Pink Floyd-lite; muzak for the soft-rock crowd, unsubstantiated nothingness with pretty melodies, sappy lyrics, and lush but saccharine orchestration. This was primarily because their first two substantial hits as a reformed band, “Tuesday Afternoon,” and “Nights in White Satin,” were labeled as “high priests of trippy, high-art pomp” by Rolling Stone itself.
In reality, the Moody Blues were pioneers of the genre that became known as progressive rock. Still, the original group had been nothing more than another rhythm and blues British Invasion band that had followed the template of the Stones and the Animals. Even though the band from Birmingham, England had a top ten hit with their 1964 single, “Go Now,” the Moodies went through a series of changes until they reinvented themselves three years later by adding wunderkind Justin Hayward as both lead guitarist and lead vocalist and the multi-talented John Lodge on bass. It was the equivalent of Fleetwood Mac adding Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham a few years later.
Throughout much of 1967, the Moodies composed, rehearsed, collaborated, and eventually recorded their concept-album masterwork, Days of Future Passed, with the 133-member, London Festival Orchestra, conducted by the legendary Peter Knight. When it was released that fall, musicologists recognized that the group had invented a new musical genre – art rock – a potent combination of psychedelia, classical, and R&B that gave their sound a celestial undertone. Because the band deemphasized the kick in their rock sound throughout the album, many rock fans dismissed them as proverbial soft rockers. I stood my ground with the naysayers and pleaded with them to give a listen to the brilliance.
The pretense of Days of Future Passed was simple and yet onerous – the Moody Blues attempted to capture a day in the life of people living and surviving in the modern world – from dawn to eventide. While “Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon”), and “Nights and White Satin” were both top-ten hits, the magic of the album could be found in the interludes in-between.
This was not a head-banging experience; it was both cerebral and whimsical, heady fare for the common man. When it was released, New York Magazine dismissed it as “a ponderous mound of thought-jello.” Ultimately, though, their music has aged well. The ‘band’s reassessment is such that they finally garnered a well-deserved spot as group members in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. Rather than followers without originality, they are now viewed as visionaries who had enough talent, ingenuity, moxie, and élan to create their own musical universe. Interestingly, Rolling Stone, which trashed Days of Future Passed in 1967, hailed it five decades later as…”one of the most endearingly popular albums of its time.” Ultimately, it is one of those concept albums that begs to be played with reverence a half a century later.
In retrospect, the Moodies were one of the first bands to fully employ the Mellotron in their music, which helped them build multilayered soundscapes. Invented in their hometown of Birmingham in 1963, the Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard. (John Lennon first made it famous in 1967’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.”) This dynamic musical force would lie at the heart of their second major masterwork, 1968’s In Search of the Lost Chord, an album that sought to encapsulate a voyage of discovery in people everywhere. Talk about a cosmic undertaking!
Because The Moody Blues were no longer working with a full orchestra, the Mellotron, under the creative genius of keyboardist Mike Pinder, took center stage for them over the next six original albums. Justin Hayward’s collaboration with Pinder on “Voices in the Sky,” is typical of the sweeping melodic and lyrical sounds the group came up with in terms of vocals, guitars, and Pinder’s Mellotron sound.
Another quintessential Moody Blues’ attribute, the use of the narrative voice, through the distinct, Oxfordian-affected tenor of percussionist Graeme Edge, provided the bookends for the album in the form of an introduction and an epilogue. Edge’s poetic salvo, which opens In Search of the Lost Chord proved to be one of his more beloved openers (in this case, to their top ten single from the album, “Ride My See-Saw”) of any in the Moody Blues prodigious catalog.
The same force frames the prologue, “The Word,” featuring Edge, and “Om,” a luminous, collaborative effort, which features the unmistakable Eastern sound of the sitar along with a hypnotic, otherworldly chant framed in Western-based imagery. Justin Hayward’s sitar-playing is a revelation and radiantly supports vocals from all five members of the band. As George Harrison stated decades later: “In terms of combining Western and Eastern sounds, only the Moody Blues and the Beatles were stirring both components together in the late sixties.”
On the heels of In Search of the Lost Chord, the Moodies plowed right into On a Threshold of a Dream, which sold more records for the band than any disc until their 1981 comeback album, Long Distance Voyager. Considered their most conspicuous hard-rock album, the record is full of surprises, most notably the soulful tune, “So Deep Within You,” which was later a hit single for the legendary Motown group, the Four Tops. Compared to many of their progressive and psychedelic contemporaries, in retrospect, the Moody Blues sound like a band that was making profoundly experimental music at the time. The LP also contains the Top 20 hit, “Never Comes the Day,” featuring the acoustic guitar of Justin Hayward and the Mike Pinder’s Mellotron. The vocal lead by Hayward here is considered the finest of his long public career. For many longtime fans, “Never Comes the Day” is their favorite Moody Blues tune ever.
After the success of both In Search of the Lost Chord and On a Threshold of a Dream, the Moodies were ambitious enough to then compose an entire album in order to celebrate the impending Apollo 11 moon landing. While To Our Children’s Children’s Children sold well at the time, it was dismissed by some rock critics for being too far-reaching and offbeat. In addition, it was the fourth major LP release by the band in a bit more than two-years. Thankfully, as we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility in 2019, the Moody Blues’ To Our Children’s Children’s Children commenced receiving some well-deserved airtime once again. After all, a band that sells 75 million albums worldwide over the last 50 years is nothing to sniff at, right?
Throughout this remarkable LP, the Moodies describe a species capable of both astonishing accomplishment with a deep-seated urgency to destroy anything in its wake. As humans climb higher, the band infers, there are still many who have been buried beneath the stuff of ambition. The group’s connecting ballads, “The Eyes of a Child” and “I’d Never Thought I’d Live to be a Hundred,” speak directly to the bookends of innocence and malice. (And on Side 2, when humankind is about to land on the moon, the band update the ballad and sings, “”I’d Never Thought I’d Live to be a Million” – a nod to the fact that the human race has not only endured but even thrived over time.)
The first side of To Our Children’s Children’s Children concludes with a transcendent instrumental by Graeme Edge, a cosmic gallop into the outer galaxy, which then leads to Mike Pinder’s “Out and In,” whose inspiring Mellotron work here matches his seamless vocals. One of the aspects of the band’s success, of course, is that most fans have their personal favorites from each album. There are very few universally popular tunes out there by the Moody Blues because each song is enduring in its own way. For me, “Out and In” is one of those gems, a purposely understated ode to wonder.
The most best-selling single of the album, Justin Hayward’s “Gypsy,” begins the second side of To Our Children’s Children’s Children with aplomb. From Ray Thomas’s lilting flute to Pinder’s exquisite Melotron to Edge’s buoyant percussional work, this is an aggregate tour de force, which has remained near the top of any Moody Blues playlist. In the end, though, it’s Justin Hayward’s virtuosity as a lead singer/guitarist who drives the engine here. His paean to exploration is unreservedly sublime and evocative.
Written out of the same pocket of dreams as “Nights in White Satin,” “Watching and Waiting,” the concluding song of To Our Children’s Children’s Children is a nostalgic and yet haunting tune is one of the most revered ballads in that larger-than-expected network known as MoodyHeads. Throughout the ballad, a pensive Justin Hayward ponders the meaning of life given our newfound status as space travelers. Given how spiritual many of their tunes were, you could make a case that “Watching and Waiting” is on top of the pile under the classification of “heartfelt and ascendant.” As usual, Hayward is radiant on every note, both as the song’s lead guitarist and primary vocalist. And when he speculates on landing on an alien planet, well, his extraterrestrial plunge into speculation is inspired: “‘Cause here – there’s a lot of room for doing/The things you’ve always been denied/So look – and gather all you want to/There’s no one here to stop you – trying.” It was the faultless closure of an aspiring release that ultimately fulfilled such exhilarating ambitions.
Over the next three years, the Moody Blues continued their sustained inventiveness by releasing the fetching albums, A Question of Balance; Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Seventh Sojourn. In A Question of Balance, the band focused on the power of the individual against a society that seemed both indifferent and all-powerful. The Moodies purposefully stripped down their sound and reinvented themselves for this disc without the layer-upon-layer approach, which had come to define them in the previous four albums. The release begins with the title track, “Question,” which turned out to be a Top 20 hit for the band in the winter of 1970. An astutely layered anti-war ballad, it is clothed by a Segovia-like acoustic riff by lead guitarist Hayward, followed by a thunderclap of horns and strings, which then pushes the relevance of the tune to its lyrical center: “Why do we never get an answer/When we’re knocking at the door? With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?”
However, it is the bridge of the song, which remains both transcendent and life-altering.
I’m looking for someone to change my life
I’m looking for a miracle in my life
And if you could see what it’s done to me
To lose the the love I knew
Could safely lead me to
The land that I once knew
To learn as we grow old
The secrets of our souls…”
This is one of those meaningful ballads, which has received considerable airplay over the years. When Justin Hayward asks his questions, there’s percussionist Graeme Edge responding in a primal-drum response that is so dynamic that it eventually propelled the tune, “Question,” into the classic rock category.
In their celebrated 1971 follow-up, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, the band opens up with one of their most memorable song/poems: “Procession,” which includes the sounds of rain, wind, and a Gregorian-like call-response in order to capture the pathos they were seeking to record. “Desolation! Creation! Communication!” This musically sublime accumulation of sound connects primitive to modern humankind like very few works of art have in recent times. It all leads into the album’s most beloved song of the LP, “Story in Your Eyes,” which opens with a prodigious guitar lick by Justin Hayward and a tum-tum roll by drummer Graeme Edge that is worthy of Dave Clark. The uplifting string lines of the Mellotron soar above the three-harmonic voices of Moody Blues vocalists Justin Hayward, Mike Pinder, and John Lodge creating a sonic landscape that frames the rest of the album. Despite the contrast between ancient and new, the one prevailing human emotion has been love.
“I’ve been thinking about our fortune
And I’ve decided that we’re really not to blame
For the love that’s deep inside us now, is still the same
And the sound we make together
Is the music to the story in your eyes
It’s been shining down upon you now, I realize.”
The Moody Blues’ septenary release since 1967, Seventh Sojourn, proved to be a prophetic, cultural sigh to an epoch framed by political assassinations, war, inequality, and the wasting away of both human and earthy resources. It was clear that both the Moody Blues and the culture that had framed them were exhausted after listening to a record that turned out to be a discordant mixture of regret, hope, and anger. Still, there were moments of genuine lucidity. In their first single from the album, “Isn’t Life Strange?” the Moodies ask an eternal question then give the immutable response – human need. The interplay between John Lodge and Justin Hayward is lovely here, as is the group’s impeccable musicianship, something that has been profoundly underappreciated over the years by many.
Seventh Sojourn closes with a final exhalation, “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band.” It was the Moody Blues attempt to tell their fans that they weren’t gurus or messiahs. You won’t find the eternal answers with them. You will only find them within your own heart and experiences. While some critics called the song, the band’s “washing their hands” moment, the fidelity behind it was just too profound to deny or misconstrue.
“I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band” wasn’t just the final song of their seventh album in six years, it turned out to the band’s finale to their pronounced classic-rock period. Like their American contemporaries, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Moodies were too exhausted to conjure up any more creativity from their collective wellspring of for five years, until their 1978 comeback album, Octave. That same year, Justin Hayward and company recorded their most exquisite number since “Tuesday Afternoon,” which was featured on the Jeff Wayne War of the Worlds album, “Forever Autumn.” A single that made it to the number 5 spot on the US Billboard Top 40 in October 1978, the ballad is now considered one of the best songs written and recorded about the most bittersweet of seasons.
Three years later, the band would produce an album worthy of their work in the late ’60’s, Long Distance Voyager, which sold more units than any disc they ever produced. Despite the premature retirement of Mike Pinder and the recent death of Ray Thomas, the Moody Blues still perform in concert, a half-century after they reached the ultimate pinnacle of success. In 2018, the group finally was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an injustice that left fans like me perplexed for more than two decades.
Thirty years ago, Justin Hayward paid a visit to a Boston FM station for a scheduled interview before a summer concert on the Boston Common. When I heard that the leader of the Moodies was going to be on the air, I eagerly tuned in, anxious to hear the normally humble lead guitarist and vocalist answer a plethora of questions in a crowded hour. As the interview concluded, Justin Hayward admitted, “Over the past twenty years, our band has ventured around the sun more than a few times, but after a while, we’ve stopped, not wanting to repeat ourselves in any way. Like a beating heart, we’re here. We’re still here.”
June 6, 2020. Two authentic legends are retiring from the classroom at The Greenwich (CT) Country Day School this coming week – Jack Jepson and Jon Bates. Despite their desires to fade into perpetual mist, both master-teachers are not going to quietly depart to the confines of Stratford, Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts without some des acclamations from me.
Jack Jepson: For those who know and love him, there is absolutely no subtly to Mr. Jepson. He is like a persistent tsunami who washes over everyone he comes in contact with every day. Whether it’s a wellspring of trivia-facts, a bevvy of enthralling anecdotes, or Midwestern-laced, commonsense advice, Jack is a rock in the surf who is there to help ground you in every way imaginable. In reality, “J, J.” has been my go-to person for the past 29 years – not only concerning teaching, coaching, and dealing with students – but in dealing with life’s unexpected twists and turns. His wisdom is unquestioned; ultimately, Mr. Jepson has served as our school’s philosopher king since 1977.
Even though Jack’s deep-seated insights and wealth of knowledge are without rival, it is his expansive heart that makes such a beloved and irreplaceable figure at GCDS. In boxing terms, Mr. Jepson leads with his head but characteristically finishes with his heart. Not surprisingly, I have never witnessed a more respected faculty member among students than Jack Jepson (who reverently call him, “Jeppy”). Ultimately, there are very few people who have ever worked at Country Day who know as much about the place. Like a fixed star, Jack Jepson is a constant reminder of how one teacher can truly make a sustaining difference in the world.
I look forward to future walks with him in his new home in Stratford, Connecticut and for visits to our house on the Cape. Thank you, Jack, for being such a discerning, steadfast, and benevolent older brother and comrade-in-arms to me, and a second father to my two children, especially to my younger son, Max. Tu me manques.
Jon Bates: “Mr. B.” has long been Country Day’s Sequoia, a majestic, robust, steadfast, and graceful tree whose sturdy branches have protected all of us for nearly 40 years. An active listener and a sagacious colleague, Jon’s ample wisdom has been a difference-maker to both to my esteemed colleagues and me. There have been innumerable times that I have approached Jon for advice, and he has generously given both his time and his thoughts to me through the bookends of both humility and astuteness. Ultimately, he is a positive role-model extraordinaire for people from 10 to 99. “If Jon Bates approves this, then I’m on board,” is a constant refrain heard at faculty meetings over the years.
Jon’s enduring passion for his students, his players, his colleagues, and his school have helped fostered the long-held notion that he has made our school a much better place. My oldest son, Sam, once exclaimed to me, “Mr. Bates makes the complex explainable.” If teaching is the highest form of understanding, then Jon Bates has served as an example for all of us to emulate. Like his esteemed colleague, Jack Jepson, he is the ultimate difference-maker.
A thriving new beginning should be a time for newfound engagement, positive growth, fascinating connections, continued contributions, and astonishing possibilities. The good people of Martha’s Vineyard are so fortunate to have you in their midst. Thank you and Godspeed, Mr. Bates!