Memories and the Ten Percent that Color Them
The Collected Memoirs
J. Michael Skaggs Copyright 2016
I played in Dad’s shoe repair shop while Mom cleaned our apartment in the back of the shop. I loved being out front with Dad and his friends that would always stop by to talk and laugh and tell stories. It was 1952, and there were two shoe repair shops in Maysville, Kentucky. OK Shoe Repair Shop, where I lived with Mom and Dad, was on Market Street and was the busier of the local shops. It even had a shoe shine stand with four seats covered with leather and bright brass foot rests that would shine as the morning sun would come in through the two showcase windows. The floor was marble just like in a museum.
One early morning Dad laughed loudly with a police officer over by the cash register while I played on the marble floor. Dad got a bottle from underneath the counter and poured into two little glasses, then tapped his glass to the police officer’s and drank the whole thing. Then they would do it again and laugh louder and louder. Their voices echoed all over the shop and I covered my ears with my hands, then stood and walked over to the police officer.
I reached up and asked the officer, “What’s that hanging down from your belt?”
The officer said, "You want to see what those are?”
I said, “Yes.”
He pulled them from his belt. He put my hands behind my back and then put them on my wrists. All the while he and Dad laughed louder and louder. He picked me up and carried me over to the shoe shine stand and sat me down on one of the chairs.
I was scared and afraid that I was going to fall.
The front door opened and Dad looked over and yelled, “Hey Green, how come they call you Green? You ain’t green, you’re black, you’re colored.”
Green looked back at Dad and said, “Oh Jim, I don’t know. It’s just a name, it don’t mean nothin’.”
I felt so bad for Green. Green would play with me and was teaching me how to shine shoes and to crack the shoeshine rag. I loved Green.
Then the police officer yelled at Green too, “Yeah Green, you ain’t green, you’re colored.” Then Dad and the police officer laughed so loud that they didn’t hear me as I fell out of my seat on the shoe shine stand. I hit my chest on the brass foot rests and fell face first over them onto the marble floor. My mouth and nose were filled with blood as I lay on the floor, screaming and crying, “Mommy, mommy, mommy!”
Dad screamed at me, “Hey you little sissy, what’s wrong with you? Get your ass back up in that chair.”
I couldn’t move and just lay there in the blood. Dad then told me to go back to your mother and stop crying or he’d give me something to cry about, as he pulled his belt off his pants underneath his smock.
Green screamed louder than anybody, “Jim, what’s wrong with you? You shouldn’t talk to the boy that way. He’s a good boy.” Green picked me up off the floor and held me to his chest wiping the blood from my mouth and nose with his shoe shine rag.
He patted me on my back and said, “It’s ok boy, It’s ok, I’m gonna’ take you back to your momma. It’s ok.”
He walked over to my dad and the police officer and said, “Jim, I’m gonna’ take him back to his momma. Yes, sir I am. And I’m gonna' tell her what you did.”
Then Green shouted again to the police officer, “And you, a police officer. What’s wrong with you? Puttin’ hand cuffs on a little boy. Take these cuffs off him now. Then I’ll take him back to his momma.” Then I’m gonna’ go tell the police chief what you did. Yes, sir that’s what I’m gonna' do. You two should be ‘shamed of yourself.”
I never forgot about Green.
In 1988 when Mom died, she was buried in Maysville Cemetery. I was living in New Jersey and would travel frequently to Louisville Kentucky on business. I’d go to Maysville to see Dad as often as I could. They had been divorced since the dreadful winter of ‘77. The Ohio River froze and Mom left Dad and moved back to Maysville from Newport Kentucky where they lived from 1953 to 1977. Mom was never happier and then she got lung cancer. Dad had come back to Maysville also in the early 80s, but they lived on separate sides of town and he knew better than to try and talk to her. When she was sick he came to her house and asked if there was anything he could do to help.
Mom told him, “You had 30 plus years and never took care of anything. Don’t ever come here again.”
I visited Mom’s grave in the spring of ‘89 and saw that the date on her headstone was wrong. It had November 4, 1988 on it and she died on November 12, 1988. Mom’s sister, Aunt Betty had told the monument maker the wrong date. Aunt Betty was Mom’s younger sister and she had married Dad’s younger brother Uncle Nat.
I was upset and went to see Aunt Betty.
She was sorry and said, “Maybe Maysville Monuments next to the cemetery could fix it.”
I went there and explained it to the proprietor. He said he could fix it for $100. I thanked him and tried to pay him, but he said, “No, pay me after I fix it.”
I asked him if he had been doing the monuments in the cemetery very long.
He said, “Yes, my family has been doing the monuments for almost 100 years, and I’ve been doing them for at least 40 years.”
I asked him, “Did you ever do a headstone for a man named Green?”
He said, “Yes, lots of Greens. Is it G r e e n or G r e e n e? What was his first name and about when did he die?”
I told him, “I don’t know.”
He laughed and shrugged, “I need more than that, what did he look like and about how old would he be now?”
I said, “He’s black and probably would be in his 60s or 70s if he was still alive.”
He said, “He must’ve done something pretty bad that makes you still want to find him?”
I told him that Green was very good to me when I was a little boy at five years old when he was a shoe shine “Boy” at OK Shoe Repair Shop, and that I wanted to thank him.
He said, “Wasn’t that Jim’s OK Shoe Repair shop.”
I said, “Yes.”
He gave me a little, thin phone book and underlined all the “Colored” Greens and told me to call them and maybe then I could find Green. I called all that he underlined and no one knew who Green was when I told them that I was looking for a man that used to shine shoes in the early 1950s. I thanked him and left the monument shop. He said he’d call me when Mom’s monument was fixed.
Dad died on August 17, 1992. It was my daughter, Tracy’s 27th birthday. Dad was 69. I got a phone call at about 3:00 AM.
The voice was a southern gentleman. He said, “I’m sorry to call you like this.”
I said, “Are you calling from Maysville, did my Dad die?”
He said, “Yes, sir, he did.”
I asked him who he was, and he told me he was the coroner, and that Dad had a heart attack, and that the paper boy found him sitting at his ham radio with his face down on his Morse code sender. The one thing Dad was good at other than fixing shoes, was he had been the Morse Code tri-state champion at the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Ham-fest in 1963.
He then told me, “You have to make the decision of where to take your father for his funeral.”
I said, “There are only two funeral parlors in Maysville and that they are right across the street from each other and that the one closer to the flood wall took good care of my mom for her funeral in 1988.”
He said, “That’s right, that would be Knox and Brothers.”
I said, “Yes, that’s right, now I remember.”
He then asked me, “You know your father used to drink a bit?”
I said, “Yes, but he quit just after Mom died in ’88 and has been sober ever since.” He said, “That’s right he did. And he also taught Morse Code to a bunch of us here in Maysville. I was one of his students, too. He’s the best anyone ever saw.”
I asked him, “Where’s my Dad now?”
He said, “Out in the backseat of my car.”
I said, “What’s he doing there?”
He said, “He’s just laying there.”
I couldn’t believe what I just heard. I said, “Where are you?”
He said, “Just across the street from Knox and Brothers.”
I thought for a moment and said, “That’s where the other funeral home is.”
He said, “Yes, I own it.”
I told him he should take care of my dad, that he took Morse Code from Dad and that he liked him.
He told me, “No, I don’t want any conflict of interest. You chose Knox and Brothers fair and square.”
He told me that he’d be at the funeral and to please stop by when I get to Maysville and introduce myself.
I never did find Green. I wish I would have, so that I could tell him how much he meant to me and that whenever I needed guidance and felt weak that I’d think of him. I wanted to thank him personally or to thank his family, if he was deceased and tell them what a wonderful man he was in the short time that I knew him long ago.
I like to think that when Dad tried to reach out to Mom when she was dying from lung cancer, and when he stopped drinking, that I finally met the man, Mom fell in love with before World War II. I also like to think when Dad taught Morse code, which he learned as a Tech Sergeant in the Army Signal Corps during WW II, to his new friends in Maysville, that the Green in him finally came out.
I loved doughnuts. Glazed doughnuts, cream filled doughnuts, custard filled doughnuts, cream puffs, powdered doughnuts, twisted doughnuts, jelly doughnuts, éclairs and chocolate doughnuts. Chocolate custard filled doughnuts are my favorites.
This love affair began when I was in the first grade in Newport, Kentucky in 1954. It was my third school in the first grade as we moved from Maysville to Newport. We moved into a little two-story house on Putnam Street between 9th and 10th Streets in Newport just around the corner from Hagedorn Bakery at 9th and York Street. My favorites at Hagedorn were the pecan rolls, cream puffs and glazed doughnuts. Of course I liked the more expensive ones first and the cheapest last. So I mostly ate glazed.
My passion for doughnuts climaxed when I began fifth grade at Saint Stephen’s in Newport. Mom had decided that she and I were going to be Catholic, so after four years in public schools, I transferred to Saint Stephen’s on the “richer” east side of Newport. We lived on the “poorer” west side. Every morning we would attend Mass at eight and all the kids would receive Holy Communion except me. I was not baptized yet, so I had to delay the gratification. The most difficult part was watching all the kids in my class eat doughnuts from Manyet Bakery for breakfast in the classroom with milk. They even had chocolate milk. You had to fast for three hours from solid food before receiving Holy Communion, so no one had breakfast at home before school. I was so jealous and mad. Watching and listening to all the chewing and licking fingers and lips from the fresh made doughnuts was more than I could handle. I would argue with my mom to hurry up and get me baptized so I could receive Holy Communion and be like the other kids and eat doughnuts for breakfast at school. I didn’t get baptized until the middle of the sixth grade.
I received my first Holy Communion the next Sunday morning at Mass at nine which was when the school kids always attended. I couldn’t wait to go to school on Monday and receive Holy Communion with my classmates and then eat breakfast with them in the classroom. When I was leaving home to go to school I asked Mom for a quarter to buy some doughnuts at Manyet Bakery and milk at school. She handed me a dime for the milk and gave me a little brown bag with sandwich of hard-boiled eggs on white bread, pickles, and mayonnaise for my breakfast. She said, “Eat this, it’s better for you and costs a lot less than those doughnuts.”
I was devastated. I had waited over a year to have a doughnut banquet with my classmates and now all I had was a hard-boiled egg sandwich. The looks I got from the other kids and the comments were more than I could take. I tried to trade half of my sandwich with a boy in the class for half of his chocolate doughnut, but he wouldn’t trade. Everyone laughed and Sister Mary Evelyn shushed me and told us to hurry and finish our breakfast so we could start classes at nine.
Mom asked me how the egg sandwich was when I got home from school. I told her, “I’m not going to Communion anymore. If I don’t get to eat doughnuts like the rest of the kids, then I’m just going to eat breakfast at home before school.”
After a week of my protest, Mom finally gave in. She said she’d let me eat the doughnuts twice a week, but the other three days it would be hard boiled egg sandwiches.
I finally went to Manyet Bakery before school on Monday morning to buy two chocolate doughnuts and one custard filled chocolate doughnut. I wanted to dive into the bag walking to school, but knew that I had to fast, so I could receive Holy Communion. That was the hardest thing I ever had to do. The doughnuts were still warm in the bag, but would be almost stale in my mind by the time I got to eat them after Mass.
When I went to Holy Communion at Mass and then covered my eyes to give thanks for receiving the Body of Christ, all I could think about was the doughnuts. I couldn’t pray anything but, thank you Jesus for giving me this day for my very first chocolate doughnuts from Manyet Bakery.
They were “Heaven on earth.” The love affair continued all the way till I started high school at Newport Catholic in 1961.
I also started my first real paying job as a paper boy delivering the Cincinnati Enquirer four days per week. The Enquirer was the morning newspaper, so I would start the day at 2:30 am and deliver newspapers till 5:30 on weekdays and until 7:30 am on Sundays. I made nine dollars per week, so I felt rich.
The best part of the job was stopping by Debbler Bakery in the west end of Newport. They weren’t open in the middle of the night, but I’d deliver a couple of papers there and they’d give me a couple of chocolate doughnuts that were still hot so that the chocolate icing was not hard yet. I would eat those doughnuts so fast as I walked the paper route throwing papers with my right hand and licking the fingers on my left hand. I’m sure that some chocolate icing made its way onto a few morning Enquirer covers.
The Debbler chocolate doughnuts were almost as good as Manyet, but the hot doughnuts, especially during the cold, early mornings of delivering newspapers, were just what I needed to stay warm. I only delivered the morning paper for one year, ending the Debbler doughnut fix after the summer of 1962.
I played high school basketball my first three years at Newport Catholic and baseball my last three years, so staying in shape eliminated doughnuts from my diet. I decided my senior year that I would not play basketball, as baseball was my better sport. I was a catcher, and a Major League Baseball scout had told me during my junior year that I’d probably grow to six feet tall and two hundred pounds. All I could think of was that I could eat some doughnuts again and it would help me to gain some weight especially since I wouldn’t be playing basketball.
My mom rented out my bedroom upstairs to Betty Debs. I had to move into the corner of the living room downstairs as my new bedroom during my senior year of high school. Mom needed the extra income to make ends meet as Dad was drinking most of the income he made fixing shoes at his little OK Shoe Repair shop in Covington, Kentucky.
This was a blessing for Mom and me. Betty Debs worked at Hagedorn Bakery just around the corner from our house on Putnam Street. Mom had worked out a deal for a land contract to buy a house a half block closer to the bakery during my sophomore year of high school on the same street. Betty was such a nice woman. She was a larger woman who loved to bring leftover doughnuts and other pastries home every night after work. She’d share them with our family, which mostly were me and my little brother Tony. Tony was just beginning first grade and he loved sweets just like I did.
Every night before bed I’d eat usually three to four different doughnuts. It even included my favorites: pecan rolls, éclairs, and cream puffs from years ago that were more expensive.
School always began on the Tuesday after Labor Day and basketball practice would officially begin on October 15th. Since I wasn’t playing basketball, I wasn’t doing anything to stay in shape, and with the new nightly doughnut regimen my weight almost achieved what the MLB scout predicted in just six short weeks. I went from one 148 pounds to 188 pounds by October 15th. I finally looked like a catcher, but without the muscles and I was still 5 feet 10 inches and not 6 feet tall as predicted.
A week later, I was missing basketball practice with my friends and asked the coach if I could still try out. Mr. Connor who also coached me in baseball looked at me and said, “Good luck.”
A couple of weeks later after excruciating pain fasting from doughnuts and attempting to run and practice basketball, Coach Connor posted the cut list on the bulletin board outside of his office. There was my name, at the bottom of the list. The last name cut. It made no difference that it was in alphabetical order. I was cut. I had never been cut before. It was a new experience. Coach Connor knew what he was doing.
I played intramural basketball on Sunday mornings in our school gym. I was so out of shape that I couldn’t even play well with and against guys who never played on the junior varsity like me at Newport Catholic. I was just doing it for fun and hoping to start to get back in shape for baseball season which began in March. All I could think about was the MLB scout seeing me now as a bigger catcher and that I’d maybe be drafted by the Cincinnati Reds instead of the United States Army. The first ever MLB draft was in 1965 and many of my classmates were also drafted into the army when they turned 18.
My baseball career came to an abrupt ending in the first game of the regional tournament 1 to 0. We were favored to win and go to the state tournament where I hoped that we’d not only win the state championship, but that I’d be noticed and win a college scholarship or be drafted by a major league team. None of that happened. My life, as I dreamed it, was over.
My first child was born on August 17, 1965 barely two months after I graduated from high school. I worked a summer job as a stock boy at R.L. Polk and Company and instead of leaving to go to college, I became a father and a husband. Fortunately, R.L. Polk kept me on.
Betty Debs had moved out of Mom’s house, so Janis and I with Tracy moved back into my old bedroom on the second floor of the house. It was a very difficult time.
I had been transferred to second shift as a multi-lift printer operator and increased my take home pay by almost double. I was going to Southern Ohio Business College in downtown Cincinnati studying accounting and dreaming of a career in business with a major company. After three months on second shift one evening after supper break, I was told to clean my multi-lift press and go home. I was laid off.
Usually I’d get home a little after midnight, but I got home at about 9:30. Mom asked me why I was home so early. I told her I was laid off and I needed to talk to Janis. Janis and Tracy both had been crying for most of the three months we lived upstairs in Mom’s house. Janis said Tracy had colic and I would say that both Tracy and Janis had colic.
I walked up the steps and into our little two rooms the three of us lived in. Janis said, “Why are you home so early? I got some news today. I’m pregnant.”
I said, “What makes you think you’re pregnant? The whole nine months that you were pregnant with Tracy you didn’t believe you were pregnant up until the day she was born. That was the longest day ever in both of our lives.”
She said, “A woman knows when she is pregnant, and I’m pregnant. I made a doctor’s appointment today. Why are you home so early?”
I said, “I got laid off.”
The colic came back to both Janis and Tracy. I wanted to join them, but excused myself to the bathroom. I felt as if I was going to have a heart attack at 18 years old. It was just one year before this that I was gaining weight and eating doughnuts by the dozens and dreaming of being a Major League Baseball catcher and now I was going to be a father for the second time.
I took a shower in the make-shift bathtub. I pulled the curtain around to keep the water from flooding the bathroom and stood in the hot shower for an eternity. I would wash my hair and body and then wash my body over and over. The water slowly began to cool as I had exhausted all the hot water. I noticed that the water level was above my knees in the tub as I was getting out to dry off. After drying off, the tub would not drain. The water level was almost up to the water spout. I reached into the drain and pulled out a handful of hair. It began to drain slowly and I reached back in and pulled out a second handful. The water slowly drained to empty.
Within one week I was hired by McAlpin’s Department Store to work in the mailroom. I was learning to operate the mailing machine that inserted the bills into envelopes, applied the postage from a meter and sealed the envelopes. I loved the feeling of accomplishment and felt that everything would be fine. We moved out of Mom’s house within a month to our very first little apartment in an attic of a Victorian house in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. Tara was born on August 19, 1966, two days after Tracy’s first birthday. My 19th birthday wouldn’t come until September 27, 1966. Life was good.
I liked working at McAlpin’s but wanted to find a better job with a larger company that would train me for a career. I had dropped out of the business college studying accounting due to finances and responsibilities. I applied to the Cincinnati and Suburban Bell Telephone Company and was hired within two weeks. My first job was in the mail room delivering mail between all of the company’s buildings within downtown Cincinnati. I was a “Motorized Messenger.” I received a raise to $69 from $60 per week at McAlpin’s and was very proud and relieved. After three months I was transferred out of the motorized messenger position to operating the machine that mailed the telephone bills to the customers. I was operating the same machine I did at McAlpin’s. It took one day to train me. Life was good.
Six months later I was offered a job to be a computer operator in training, but it would be on second shift. It was not a pay raise promotion, but a great opportunity. I would get a nice raise though because it was second shift and I got a ten percent shift differential, so I was now up to $76 per week. My good life was getting better.
Janis felt we needed to move to a larger apartment since we were going to have two children and living in an efficiency apartment on the third floor was not the right place.
We moved to a two-story two-bedroom cottage just a few blocks away on Garrison Ave. in Ft. Thomas. It felt like such an accomplishment to now have an adorable little house and a good job and a healthy family. Then, Tracy was beginning to have seizures and eventually was diagnosed with epilepsy. We had a very good pediatrician, Dr. Beckmeyer, and he said that Tracy would more than likely outgrow the seizures and should have no issues. Tracy’s eyes were severely crossed from birth and we had an excellent ophthalmologist Dr. Powleit.
Tracy got her first pair of glasses at a little over two years old and her first eye operation at three. She was so adorable with her eye patch and her glasses. Janis had begun to teach dancing again. She taught dancing, tap, ballet and modern jazz when she was in high school. This helped the family income. She taught in the volunteer fire department in Melbourne, Kentucky. They would park the fire trucks outside every Saturday morning for several hours while Janis taught little girls how to dance. There would even be a recital at the end of the season.
I would drive Janis to Melbourne for the dance lessons and then the real fun began for Tracy, Tara and me, “Doughnuts.” Yes, we’d get a dozen doughnuts and a two-liter bottle of Coca Cola and have a party back at our little cottage on Garrison Avenue. I would eat about six and the girls would split the other six. I still loved the chocolate cream filled doughnuts the best and the girls loved it all. Tara always was very deliberate with everything. She would savor each and every bite taking at least twice as long to eat her three doughnuts. I could have eaten more, but I wanted to share the wealth with the girls.
Usually after our breakfast we’d have a nap.
Janis eventually had to move her dance classes from the volunteer fire department to a bar, Pete’s Place, across Route Eight in Melbourne. They had a back room that was larger than the fire department and more little girls could take the lessons. We even dreamed of saving enough money to buy a house one day.
There was an opportunity to become the assistant supervisor, clerk six, on the second shift at the telephone company after my first year on the job. I was a clerk nine as a computer operator. I had to take the test for computer programming to qualify for the job. I took the test, but did not do well enough to get the promotion. I was devastated. My dream was to become a computer programmer and now it was gone. My boss, Ruth Hugo was very kind and told me that I did well on a different part of the test and that they wanted to promote me to a facilities clerk four in the plant engineering department at the Dana Ave facility. I was shocked and knew nothing about plant engineering. She told me not to worry that they would train me and I’d also get a nice raise and wouldn’t have to work second shift although I would lose my ten percent night-differential. She said I’d start in two weeks.
I was very apprehensive, but also excited. My pay went from $76 per week to $82 which in reality was a raise from $69 to $82 since I’d lose the $7 night-differential.
My favorite part of the new job was, “Going into the field” as it was called with an engineering assistant to “Engineer” where to put the telephone poles and wires or where to bury the telephone cable to bring the service to new developments. What fascinated me the most was all of the new restaurants and bakeries that existed all over Cincinnati suburbs that I had never eaten at before. We would usually leave the office together and on the way to the sites we’d stop by a bakery. I’d usually get at least three doughnuts. All of the engineering assistants would tease me about my love affair with doughnuts.
After one year in plant engineering, I was not as happy as I was when I worked with computers. The training was difficult to comprehend and I never saw myself doing this as a career. There were rumors that the telephone company was going on strike in the spring of 1968. I was terrified that I’d be on strike with no pay and for how long? Janis suggested that I apply to Procter & Gamble. She had uncles that worked there and they were, “Rich.” We had visited their houses in the Cincinnati suburbs a few times and they were the richest people I knew. I saw a job advertisement in the Cincinnati Enquirer for Lab Technicians. I applied and received an interview within a week.
I had three interviews in one day and was offered a job as a lab tech the same day. They offered me $110 per week which was an increase of $28 per week to work for the “Best Company in Cincinnati” according to Janis and most everyone I knew. All I had to do was pass a physical which was scheduled for a few days later.
I failed the physical. I had a major cavity in a tooth on my lower right jaw. But, the stakes were high and I made an appointment that day. The dentist told me the tooth was beyond saving and pulled it.
The P&G doctor passed me for my physical and I began working at P&G on March 28, 1968, the same day the Cincinnati and Suburban Bell Telephone Company went on strike.
Every morning at P&G we’d have an official 10 minute coffee break for 30 minutes. No one ever kept track of the time nor complained. It was the system. There was a coffee cart that would be in the break area. They had wonderful doughnuts.
I weighed 188 pounds when I started at P&G and within three months I was up to 208 pounds. I worked mostly in the pilot plant which involved heavy lifting of raw materials in paper bags. The sodium sulfate, sodium tri-poly phosphate, and sodium carbonate bags would weigh from 50 to 75 pounds each. The P&G cafeteria was also excellent. I was hungry all the time and needed the extra bulk to have the strength to do the job.
Perry Morgan was my mentor. Perry trained me how to do everything. He was 38 years old and everyone at P&G liked Perry. He had gained some weight and went on a diet. It was a low carbohydrate diet and he was very successful. Of course I started the diet with him. I went from 208 pounds to 172 in two months. With all the exercise, lifting the raw material bags and no more doughnuts I had the best physique since I was a junior in high school when I played basketball and baseball.
I felt very good about myself with an excellent job and being back in shape. I was also going to try out for a new Tri-State League amateur baseball team that summer as well and I was hired to work part-time as a medical lab technician at Children’s Hospital. Perry got me the job. There were about ten guys, all P&G lab techs who worked at Children’s and I was invited in. The pay was $2.75 per hour after training for about three months, which was my same pay at P&G.
Janis was ecstatic. With my two jobs and her teaching dancing she said we could now save enough money to buy a house because we needed more space. She was pregnant with our third child.
We saved $50 per week in the P&G credit union and Todd was born on March 27, 1969, just one day short of my first anniversary at P&G. We purchased a three-bedroom brick ranch house with two baths, living room, kitchen and dining room with an unfinished basement, one car garage, front and back yard in the suburb of Elsmere, Kentucky. The commute to P&G was terrible. My time increased by 30 minutes each way and now I had to also cut the grass in the front and back yard. We were about 35 to 40 minutes away from Janis’s parents house in Newport, Kentucky and Janis was about 60 to 70 minutes away from her older sister Marilyn’s house in Alexandria, Kentucky. Neither Janis, Marilyn nor their mother had a driver’s license. Marilyn also just had her third child two months after Todd was born and moved out to the rural area of Alexandria. Both Janis and Marilyn were on the phone much of the time sharing stories of isolation and post-partum depression. I had no clue what to do. We seemed to have the “American Dream” and I was only 21 years 6 months old.
Working two jobs and with a difficult commute, my only respite was doughnuts. They brought me instant gratification. I gained weight back to what seemed to be my new normal of 188. I was not in bad shape since I still worked in the pilot plant, but I was gone much too much from Janis and the kids. I had also transferred my shift at Children’s Hospital from evenings five to midnight three to four nights per week to the midnight shift. The midnight shift was from midnight to 7:15 am. I’d leave Children’s Hospital for my job at P&G in a rush to have some doughnuts and black coffee before my shift began at 8:00 am. There were two bakeries, Garmans and Priscilla in St. Bernard on the way to P&G. I could stop in and get three to four fresh chocolate doughnuts and a large hot coffee and be in the break area by 7:30ish. I’d also pick up the morning Enquirer and be in a transitional heaven for thirty minutes before the new work day began.
All came to a stunning halt during my routine commute from Children’s Hospital to P&G one morning in late January 1971. I had four chocolate doughnuts, morning newspaper and a large hot coffee from Priscilla Bakery in my 1968, chocolate brown two-door vinyl hardtop, Buick Le Sabre, when I approached the railroad tracks at Spring Grove Avenue and Vine Street. The gates were coming down as they had many times before during this commute. It was always a slow moving freight train. The wait could be 10 to 15 minutes and my patience was very thin. It had been a difficult, very busy shift at the hospital and all I craved was my morning routine to relax before eight more hours at P&G. It usually would take the train about 30 to 40 seconds to arrive at the gates once they were down.
I drove left around the gate, then right, onto the tracks when I saw a double flashing light high in the air of the engine and heard a thunderous whistle sound just as the locomotive crashed into me. I have never heard a louder explosion in my life. The doors flew open, the windshield burst, the doughnuts and coffee and newspaper flew into the windshield and back onto me as I flew into the rearview mirror. We didn’t wear seatbelts in 1971. I saw the train slide past the intersection and heard the squealing wheels passing by, and I saw a police car flying toward me as my Buick Le Sabre retraced my path off the tracks. I slowly got out of the car wondering if I was dead or alive. I was in shock. There I was standing next to my car in my Midnight Cowboy fringe leather jacket with my Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat smashed on my head from crashing into the rear view mirror. The officer was running toward me from the rear as was the engineer in front from the train. The engineer was shouting as loud as he could at me. He was livid. I thought he was going to kill me if I wasn’t already dead. The police officer saved both of us. He intervened settling the engineer down pushing him away from me.
The officer asked me, “What the hell were you doing?”
I said, “Sorry officer, I was in a hurry to get to P&G.”
He said, “Do you know Ronnie Kramer?”
I said, “Yes, he’s a great guy. He’s works in engineering. I know him well.”
This always happened whenever you told someone you worked at P&G, “Do you know so and so.” This actually helped to settle me down.
The officer was incredibly nice. There was the “Helicopter Cop” Lieutenant Art Mehring flying above the “Train Wreck” announcing on WLW-AM radio why the traffic was now backed up all the way to Interstate 75 both north and southbound. I found this out a little later in the morning.
What the officer did next I’ll never forget. He wished me a safe journey on to P&G as he issued me a traffic ticket and had the engineer break the coupling on the train so that he could clear the intersection to begin to have traffic flow again after this 30 plus minute interlude. He called for a tow truck telling me that my car was, “Totaled.”
I walked across the tracks without my doughnuts, newspaper or coffee. I was the only person in the break area at 7:59 am. I was not late for work, but everyone else was.
I began to get a migraine headache. I was mostly alone till about 8:30 when everyone finally was able to get to work after the incident at Spring Grove Avenue and Vine St. Apparently the knot on my right forehead was quite colorful and everyone started to inquire at our nine o’clock break. The second loudest roar after the train wreck came from the break area when I announced that it was me that, “Tied with the train.” The laughter was deafening. No one could stop laughing and neither could I. My headache got worse and worse. I went to see the same P&G doctor who failed me for my physical and he suggested that I go to the hospital or at least go home.
I went home. John Jackson, a fellow technician who lived near my house drove me home after I called Janis and told her what happened. I slept all day.
I went back to work the next day. We got a new car about a week later. It was a 1970 Camaro Z-28, 4 on the floor, 350 cubic inches, 360 horsepower 2-door hardtop, British racing green with a white racing stripe down the middle. This was not a family car.
Three weeks later I left a note on the dining room table for Janis. I moved out.
Janis always felt that the train wreck was the cause. She thought that I lost my mind.
People didn’t do therapy or marriage counseling in those days. We didn’t either. I stopped eating doughnuts and I stopped playing baseball.
My right arm was always sore. I could throw the dime rubber ball fast and also curve it playing strike out at 9th Street schoolyard in Newport, Kentucky. I loved the one on one competition. I hated to lose. We’d play strikeout from morning till dark in the summertime. I had a rubber arm.
I took as much pride in my hitting as well. I would pretend that I was my hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds. I was a natural righty but, I’d switch hit calling out each Red’s name; Johnny Temple, Frank Robinson, George Crowe, Don Hoak, Gus Bell, Ed Bailey, Jerry Lynch and Roy McMillan. I’d even use the pitching rotation every game I played; Bob Purkey, Don Newcombe, Joe Nuxhall, Harvey Haddix and Brookes Lawrence. We didn’t have a grass infield nor bases to run. The field was concrete. It was just pitcher versus batter in strikeout. It was mano a mano. We played between two walls. The strike out box was painted in white on the side of Newport High School. It was a vertical rectangle with S in the lower part for strike and B in the top part for ball. Any pitch outside of the S was a ball unless of course the batter would swing and miss or foul tip. I had my favorite Louisville Slugger, wood grain bat and a hutch fielder’s glove. Those were the only tools I needed. The rest was determination, eye to hand coordination, quick reflexes and an attitude.
I was 10 years old.
No one my own age could beat me. I would challenge boys in junior high or even high school to play me. All you needed was the 10 cent rubber ball and a bat. You could play without a glove since the ball was rubber. The ball would usually only last a few games depending on how often it was hit. It would get softer with each pitch bouncing back to the pitcher off the wall if the batter took the pitch or missed it. The damage that would finish the ball was caused from hit after hit and especially foul tips that would begin to chip away at the ball. Eventually the ball would disintegrate into two pieces. Time for a new dime ball. I always had an extra ball to keep playing. Usually the loser, if he wanted to keep playing, had to provide the ball. I seldom lost, but always had a ball just in case.
Sometimes guys would watch me play other guys and root for their favorite. I could tell that I didn’t have many fans. I was cocky. I would challenge the older, better players. That’s how I improved.
After my first summer of strike out competition in 1958, a few guys told me I should play knothole baseball. They already played on teams and told me I should tryout. Mom said, “No.” I would plead and plead, but “No” was the answer. Two kids on my block played for a team and they were two years younger than me, but Mom still said, “No.” Finally, Billy Viars who was my same age, but a grade behind me in school, who I had a few extra inning strikeout matches with asked my mom why she wouldn’t let me play baseball. She said, “I don’t want Mike to get hurt.” Billy told her, “Don’t worry, it will be Mike who is doing the hurtin’.” Mom really liked Billy. We all did. He was the funniest kid I knew and the best basketball player my age and a really good strikeout player. I had never been to a baseball game, the Cincinnati Reds or knothole, so I was in for a surprise.
Billy took me to tryout for Oasis Cocktail Lounge Class C knothole team. Oasis had come in second place last year and now most of the players were back for their second year in Class C. They had lost their pitcher Johnny MacTheny and their best hitter, Vince “Big Red” Ziegler since they both turned twelve years old. Johnny Mac would never play me in strikeout since he was saving his pitching arm for baseball instead of a kids’ rubber ball game.
Billy had told the coach, Mr. Brockman about me and said that I could pitch.
I was nervous. I had never hardly ever thrown a baseball. It was bigger and heavier than our little dime rubber ball. Billy had Mr. Brockman convinced that I’d replace Johnny as the ace of the staff.
They had me warmup on the sideline. I was throwing as hard as I could with my normal windup. I was fast, but not as fast as I was in strikeout. My hand seemed so small wrapped around the baseball. I could already feel my right arm tiring and I was only getting lose.
Mr. Brockman told me that I was going to pitch batting practice. He said this was my tryout. He said, “Show me what you got.” I was very nervous. I knew some of the guys and they knew that I was trying to get them out. There was a complete team behind me and I was pitching to a catcher and not a strikeout box on a wall. I walked to the mound and threw a few pitches to the catcher to get the feel of the pitcher’s rubber. Since it was Class C knothole, the pitcher did not pitch from the mound. That would be Class A when you were fourteen and fifteen years old.
The first batter stepped in. He dug his spikes in cleaning a space for him. He looked at me like he wanted to kill me. My nerves were shaking and all I could think of was, Mom was right. I was going to get hurt. Mr. Brockman had instructed me to only throw fastballs, no curves. I wound up and fired the ball as hard as I could. It sailed over the batter’s and the catcher’s head. The next two pitches were also wild. The count was 3-0 and the batter had not even swung yet. Mr. Brockman walked out to me and said, “Settle down, just throw strikes.” I wound up and fired my best fastball. I hit him in the helmet and he collapsed on the ground next to home plate. Everybody ran in to him. I stood alone on the mound.
Mr. Brockman came out and asked me if I ever played shortstop. He said the shortstop has the best arm in the infield and that I could throw hard, just a little wild. I shook my head yes, but I had never played anywhere before except between two walls at 9th St. schoolyard. I knew how to field on concrete, but had no clue how to field and throw to first base on a field.
I went to shortstop and a new pitcher was pitching batting practice. Mr. Brockman now pitched batting practice and he could throw strikes. We were instructed to field the balls and to throw to first base and the outfielders were instructed to throw the ball on one bounce to second base during batting practice.
The first pitch Mr. Brockman threw was hit hard to my left up the middle. I ran as hard as I could to field it, but it was out of my reach. The next pitch was hit to my right toward third base and I also did not field it, but I did knock it down. It really hurt my glove hand. I had never fielded a baseball before. The batter started to hit line drives over the infielder’s heads as he continued. I couldn’t wait to bat.
Finally, a ground ball was hit very hard, but directly to me. I fielded it clean and then with one step fired a strike to my friend Billy Viars at first base. Mr. Brockman smiled back to me and said, “Nice job,” as he walked over to me instructing me to take a couple of steps toward the target, first base before throwing. He said, “Your throws will be more accurate with the extra step.”
The batter came out to shortstop to replace me and said “You’re on deck.” I didn’t know what he meant. I was confused. He told me, “You hit next after the batter in there now.”
I didn’t even know which bat to use. They had so many flame tempered Louisville Sluggers to pick from. I must have tried out swinging five or six bats, before I settled on a 29 inch bat with a medium handle. It felt good.
Mr. Brockman was still pitching and he told me I could hit eight pitches. He said, “That includes foul balls too.” I loved batting. I knew that the only way I could make this team was to be a good hitter. I knew my pitching days were over and I felt little confidence as a shortstop. So, I dug in at the plate.
I took the first pitch and it was right down the middle. It was a strike. I was too nervous to swing for fear I’d miss it or foul it off wasting one of my eight hits. He threw the exact same pitch and I took it again. Mr. Brockman walked in from the mound and put his arm around my shoulder saying, “You’re never going to hit it if you don’t swing.”
He wound up again and threw the exact same pitch down the middle and I hit a line drive right back through the middle almost beheading Mr. Brockman. He ducked and glared at me and said, “Nice hit.” I hit several more line drives all fair and I felt good about my first time ever at bat hitting a baseball.
After batting practice, Mr. Brockman told us we were going to do infield and outfield practice. He put me at shortstop. His son Johnny was the second baseman. Mr. Brockman would hit ground balls to each infielder and we had to throw the ball to the first baseman as if it was a real game. He hit to third base first and then me. I fielded clean, took two steps like he had showed me and rifled the ball to Billy at first. We did three rounds of this and then he wanted us to do double plays. I had never done this, so I just watched how the third baseman did it. He fielded, pivoted and threw to Johnny at second base and Johnny caught it and threw to Billy at first. Now it was my turn. I fielded it clean and pivoted and fired it to Johnny and Johnny dropped it. Mr. Brockman shouted out to me, “Don’t throw it so hard, you’ve got time.”
He hit me another ground ball, but it was up the middle toward second base. I ran as hard as I could and fielded it about ten feet from second base. I stayed down and threw it as hard as I could and hit Johnny right in the head. He fell down, holding his head, as Mr. Brockman ran to his son. Johnny got up and I could see the ball mark on his forehead. Mr. Brockman instructed me to go to left field.
Practice was over as it was getting dark. We had our next practice in two days. Billy Viars walked home with me. I told him I’d never make the team. I apologized and said I was terrible and I wouldn’t be back for practice tryouts. Billy tried to settle me down telling me to relax and he’d come by to ride our bikes to practice on Thursday.
We actually had a practice game on Thursday. I was disappointed because I was on the bench. The starting lineup was mostly guys who had returned for their second year with the team. This was Class C Knothole baseball so we only played five innings per game. In the third inning our catcher Chico Davis was hit by a foul tip on his right hand and had to come out of the game. Eddie Ziegler, our third baseman was the backup catcher, replaced Chico. Eddie was spiked tagging out a runner who slid trying to score. Mr. Brockman looked at the bench and said, “Who wants to catch?” I jumped up and said, “Me, I’ll catch.”
I didn’t even know how to put the shin guards and the chest protector on. The face mask was a distraction also. There was no practice. The pitcher, Bob Bradley called me out to the mound and told me, “one for fastball, two for curve, three for changeup and four for pitchout.”
They had a guy on first and there were two outs and it was the top of the fifth. We were far ahead and they had no chance to catch us. I put one finger down, calling for a fastball. The batter swung and missed and the runner on first took off for second. I took one step and fired a bullet to second. He was out by two steps. We won the game and I only caught one pitch and made one throw.
Chico recovered from his spike wound and returned as catcher. Mr. Brockman had me playing left field and also catching batting practice. I was the backup left fielder and backup catcher in the next three practice games and during practices. I was learning how to play baseball.
Our first game of the year was against St. Johns on Newport Diamond Number three. During infield practice it was obvious that St. John’s didn’t have a chance against us. We batted first. I was on the bench. We scored 25 runs in the first inning. Ed Ziegler hit 2 grand slam homeruns knocking in 8 of the 25 runs. Bob Bradley struck out the side, 1, 2, 3 in the bottom of the first. There was no such thing as a 10 run rule in 1959.
We were up 40-0 when I finally got into the game in the 4th inning. Mr. Brockman put me in to pinch hit. I was never more nervous in my life. It was my first time at bat in a real game. I fouled off the first 2 pitches with the 2nd one a hard line drive down the left field line that was far past the left fielder. I took the next two pitches for balls. With the count 2 and 2 I took the next pitch for ball 3. I dug in and wanted to hit the ball farther than Eddie Ziegler’s homeruns. The pitcher threw a fastball right down the middle of the plate. I swung as hard as I could and missed for strike 3. I struck out my first time at bat. It was the first strikeout for the St. John’s pitcher who was behind 40-0.
Mr. Brockman put me in to catch. I was surprised thinking I’d be in left field. Bob struck out the side once again and it would be our last time at bat in the top of the fifth.
I wanted to bat one more time. I had failed so bad my first time and was embarrassed. We scored 5 runs and I came to bat with 2 outs and nobody on. The St. John’s pitcher looked at me and knew that he had struck me out last inning. I fouled the first pitch even farther than I did last inning down the left field line. I fouled the second pitch over the catcher’s head into the backstop. The count was no balls and two strikes. I was nervous, but would not miss again. He threw a fastball right down the middle and I hit a line drive between the left and center fielders that rolled to the weeds in left centerfield. It was my first hit ever, a standup homerun. My average was .500 after my first game.
Chico Davis continued to be the catcher for the next two games and I would continue to catch batting practice and learn the position. Chico quit the team after the first month. I became Oasis Cocktail Lounge catcher. I batted .444 that summer. I never hit another homerun. I don’t think a base runner ever stole second base when I was catching. Toward the end of the season the all-star game with Kenton County was to be played at Meinken Field in Covington, Kentucky. Mr. Brockman told us that the players and two coaches would vote for who would represent Oasis on the all-star team and that we were not allowed to vote for ourselves. We were in first place in Campbell County Class C and would be represented by four players. We had 13 players on our team and 2 coaches. Johnny Brockman second base, Mr. Brockman’s son received the 4th highest votes, Robbie Shearer center field received the 3rd highest votes, Bob Bradley pitcher got the 2nd most votes. The Mr. Brockman said, “Unanimous, our catcher Mike Skaggs received 14 votes.” I was shocked.
We lost the all-star game.
Oasis represented Campbell County in Class C in the National Knothole Tournament. The tourney was every year in the middle of August at Deer Creek Commons in Cincinnati. We played Middletown, Ohio on the first Saturday morning. Deer Creek Commons had six diamonds. The tournament lasted a week over two weekends and was one loss and you’re out.
It was the largest crowd I had ever seen, even more than the all-star game in Covington. We had a 4-2 lead against Middletown going into the bottom of the 5th inning. Middletown scored three runs in the last inning.
We lost 5-4.
A partial solar eclipse occurred on March 28, 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. led a protest march on behalf of the Memphis sanitation workers. It was a Thursday. I had resigned from Cincinnati Bell Telephone 2 weeks before as a facilities clerk 4 to become a lab technician at Procter & Gamble. I had no experience as a lab tech. I graduated with one course in chemistry from Newport Catholic High School in 1965. I think I had a low C average for the year, but I loved Brother Cormac who also taught me geometry, another low C average year as well. We had 208 graduates, all male thoroughbreds from NC back then and I was about 108th or so. I had no college, but I was married and had two daughters. I passed the tests that personnel gave me and had 3 interviews all in the same day about 2 weeks before. They offered me a job the same day and scheduled a physical which I also had to pass. So this baseball catcher knew he was in. I had answered an ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer for laboratory technicians. Cincinnati Bell was going to go on strike, so I was afraid that our little family would fall further behind than we already were.
I failed the physical. Everything was fine except for the disintegrating tooth cavity I had on my lower right jaw. It tasted terrible. The P&G doctor told me that when I get that tooth fixed that he’d pass me for the physical. It happened about five years before when I was eating popcorn at a high school basketball game in my original hometown Maysville, Kentucky. I was there cheering my varsity Thoroughbred teammates on against the Bulldogs. I was on the reserve team. Mom wouldn’t send me to the dentist. That cost money and we had little. I didn’t have a toothache, so why go to the dentist. I had never been to the dentist in my life.
I knew there was a dentist about two blocks on 9th street from my old home where I grew up in Newport, Kentucky. I made an appointment for the next day. The dentist told me that the tooth was not worth saving and he pulled it. I was terrified, but he sent me on my way. The P&G doctor gave me a clean bill of health and I was good for the gold now. They said I could start as soon as I wanted.
My first day was two weeks later. I drove by the picket line at Cincinnati Bell on my way to P&G at Ivorydale Technical Center. I even took the exit off the Interstate 75 after crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky to see the strikers at 4th and Sycamore in downtown Cincinnati. I was so relieved. And to think that my pay when I left the telephone company was $82 per week. I had been there two years and was a mail clerk for three months, then a computer operator the first year with no prior experience. My starting pay was $69 dollars per week. On the job training was big in the 60s if you “Had potential” or passed the testing protocols.
I took the test for programmer, my dream job at the phone company and failed. So they promoted me from a clerk 9 as a computer operator to a job in the plant engineering department as a facilities clerk 4, which was to assist an engineering assistant clerk 1 to draw work orders on where to install telephone poles and lines and cables. I knew nothing about this, but I had “Potential.”
My starting pay at P&G was $110 per week. I got a $28 dollar per week pay increase for a job, or should I say career opportunity for which I had no experience nor education at one of the best companies not just in Cincinnati, but the world according to local folklore and especially my wife, Janis. Janis has a few uncles who worked for, “Procter & God” as P&G was referred to often in the Queen City of Cincinnati.
I remember when I gave my two weeks notice to my supervisor at the telephone company and he said, “What are you going to be doing at P&G?”
I told him that I was going to be a lab tech.
He glared at me and said, “You have no experience as a lab tech. What are you thinking. We’ve given you this great training here and you’re leaving us for that.”
I said, “Yes, and they’re giving me a $28 a week pay increase and I hear there is overtime available and they’re not going on strike.”
I was so excited that March 28th morning. Janis and her family were so supportive. They all told me that I’d love it and this was the best break ever. Janis was already talking about us buying our own house instead of the little two-story bungalow we were renting. Suddenly I felt pressure to excel.
Work started at 8:00 AM, but I reported to the personnel office at 8:00. After signing several forms for what seemed harder than the testing I had done, they congratulated me and took me to the Ivorydale Technical Center Annex to meet my boss and start my career. I must have seemed like some Jonathan Swift “Yahoo” from Gulliver’s Travels or “Hillbilly” from The Real McCoys or Beverly Hillbillies.
Jules Saslow was the Group Leader and a Jewish Chemical Engineer from New York City. Tony O’Reilly was my boss and a Chemical Engineer from Ireland. Perry Morgan was a lab tech from the town of St Bernard where ITC was located and a former basketball star in high school. Malcolm Allen was a black lab technician who had gone to Taft High School in downtown Cincinnati and was also a baseball catcher like me. I was nothing but smiles and laughs as I met my new group. It was 8:55 and Perry was going to be my mentor.
He said, “Come on we’re going on break. Break time is at nine. Follow me.” And we were off.
We walked for about 3 to 4 minutes on the way to the break area. I should have been dropping bread crumbs as everything along the way was foreign to me. So many labs and pilot plants and I didn’t have a clue of how to do anything. Perry told me not to worry, he’d train me up and everything would be OK. Perry walked me into the break room and everyone was smoking and Perry lit up the moment he walked in. We sat down at a big table in the far away corner after getting some coffee and doughnuts. Then, Perry started introducing me to about a dozen guys at the break table.
“Hey everybody, this is Mike. He just started today and he’s a briar.”
Everybody started laughing hilariously including Perry whose laugh sounded just like a pigeon cooing. I’d stand up and shake hand after hand.
As each guy shook my hand, he’d shake his head and say, “Oh my God, another briar. Where do they find them these days?” Then everybody would laugh louder and louder. I was shocked, but my face hurt from smiling and acting as if I knew what they were laughing about and laughing as loud as I could too. They all joked telling me to look out for Perry, that he was the best practical joker in the annex and that I was in good hands, but don’t mess up. The break was till 9:30 and then Perry led me back to the lab to start training me.
On the way back I asked Perry, “What’s a Briar?”
Perry cooed as he did often and said, “You, you know, you’re a briar. You’re from Kentucky. What color is your outhouse? Does it match your house color?” Then he cooed louder and louder.
I said, “Perry have you ever been to Kentucky?”
He said, “Only on the way to the airport which is in Boone County, but never stopping anywhere in between.”
I half-heartedly chuckled and said, “You should get out more often. And why was everyone laughing so hard at me. I don’t know if I’m going to like this place.”
Perry looked me right in the eye and said, “Don’t worry Mikey, they wouldn’t tease you if they didn’t like you.” I guess that was the most likes I ever got in one day. But the migraine headache I had sure didn’t make me feel I was liked very much.
When I got home from work that day, I was exhausted and my headache was only worse. Janis was all smiles and so excited. She would not stop talking and asking questions.
She said, “How was it? Isn’t P&G incredible? Wasn’t it everything I told you it would be. When do you get our first check? Do you like your boss? What are you going to be doing? I’m so excited. I was on the phone all day with Mom and my sister Marilyn. We’re all so happy.”
I said, “Janis, I don’t think I’m going back.”
She interrupted me, “What, you don’t think you’re going back. Are you crazy? What in the world could make you think that?”
I said, “They think we’re briars. I’m a briar, you’re a briar, Tracy and Tara are briars. We’re all just a bunch of briars.”
She said, “What in the world is a briar?”
I said, “I know. I didn’t know till today what a briar was. But, now I do and we’re not welcomed there.”
“So what is it”, Janis asked.
I said, “A hillbilly. They think we’re a bunch of hillbillies, just because we’re from Kentucky.”
She said, “You listen to me, we may be briars, but we’re not quitters. You take some aspirin and I’ll fix some supper and we’ll talk about this later. But, you’re going back there and you’ll like it.”
I did go back. I did like it. I learned to laugh with all the guys. I met people from all over the world that I never would have had the opportunity to meet if it had not been for P&G.
One week later on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The break table discussion on Friday morning was not what I expected. I had only known my new friends and co-workers for a week and I heard vicious condemnation of Martin Luther King Jr. I was shocked. I didn’t know exactly how to respond. I seemed to be on an island of one at this table with coffee, doughnuts and cigarette smoke everywhere.
I had dreamed of going to the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, even though I had never been out of Kentucky or Ohio in my life. I mentioned it to my mom and she nearly knocked me from the kitchen table with her arm waving and screaming, “Are you nuts?” I had never even been to Indiana, which was just about 20 miles away along the Ohio River west bound, so the dream ended there.
I was now working at the most integrated place I had ever seen from my entire life through schools and working. P&G had more ethnic diversity than I had ever talked to or knew about yet, there seemed to be a disregard for the Civil Rights Movement that now was stopped dead in its tracks at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
I silently sat there and listened to the negativity that surrounded me.
Perry was the best friend a young man to ever have as a mentor and buddy. Everyone loved Perry and they eventually accepted me as well, but I found very few allies along the way as I began to find my voice.
I worked any of three shifts as a part-time medical lab tech at Children’s Hospital. This was one of the perks of being a full-time lab tech at Procter & Gamble. We the, “Night Guys” at Children’s staffed the lab all shifts with the exception of eight to five Monday through Friday. The weekday full-time staff were professional Medical Technologist, all women and we were the old boys network of friends from P&G who would moonlight to subsidize our non-professional status at P&G as well.
After I proved myself worthy to my mentor Perry at P&G in just three months he told me of an opening to work at Children’s Hospital part-time. The training pay would be minimum wage of $1.50 per hour and I could work as many shifts as wanted Monday – Sunday from 5:00 to midnight or Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm during training. I jumped at the opportunity. I had really improved our financial status leaving the Telephone Company to go to P&G in the spring of 1968 and now an opportunity in the summer of ‘68 to increase the family wealth existed. I couldn’t pass on this since Janis suspected she was pregnant. She said, “We have to buy a house.” So now at 20 years and 9 months old with two daughters, I now had 2 jobs, and a 3rd child coming next year in March.
After training I’d move up to $2.75 per hour which was exactly my same pay at P&G. At this point I finally realized that it’s not what you know, but who you know that gets you ahead.
I worked as many hours as I could to be able to become a partner for one of the evening 5:00 to midnight shifts. We worked two guys per shift each evening and as soon as I was trained and passed the test by the day-time Medical Technologist supervisor, then I was ready and could get that pay raise and have a regular shift of every 3rd evening from 5:00 to midnight including weekends. We could even make trades with the other guys since we all worked at P&G and would travel often in our day job, so we’d trade or give away the shift to a buddy. I had never been happier in my life. I could even make trades if I was scheduled to work on the weekend if necessary since I still played baseball. I was a very busy young man.
The primary part of the job was to draw blood from the kids and do complete blood counts on them. We also drew the blood for chemical analysis too. Our blood drawing though wasn’t venipuncture, but just finger, toe or heel pricks. My favorite part of the job was drawing blood from the kids. The social interaction was a challenge. Everyone was in fear and I was fearless. Nothing felt better than the surprise prick of the finger or toe or heel and to not hear a scream or see tears. Of course it was almost impossible with a baby, but I’d succeed often with toddlers and above. They would be terrified, but I’d be chatting constantly, telling them what was going to happen and during the chat I’d swab the alcohol on the target area and plunge the lance into the bulls-eye before they knew what hit them. So much success, so little time I’d think. It’s all about timing, sort of like hitting a baseball.
I enjoyed looking at blood under the microscope also. We would do the complete blood count which included a hemoglobin, hematocrit, red blood cell count, white blood cell count and differential smear blood count. I had never spent any significant time looking through a microscope until this. Differentiating the white blood cells and the platelets was the most difficult. It required training to identify the different types of white cells and to report the percentage. This was not only important, it was fun.
We also did urinalysis. Yellow and clear, or cloudy, pH, protein, glucose, and look at it under the microscope too. One day, Vern who was the oldest of the techs and also even a bigger practical joker than Perry was doing the “Urines” and had them all lined up dipping the sticks into each one and writing the results on the requisitions. I was watching as he trained me when he reached for his coffee and accidently picked up one of the urines and took a sip. He swirled it around in his mouth a few times and then spit it out in the sink and said, “Not bad.” Then he wrote the results on the requisition while laughing so loud I had to hold my ears. He had set it up to play a joke on me. Perry had always told me, “They wouldn’t tease you if they didn’t like you.”
Vern was non-stop with his fun. It wasn’t just in the lab. When he’d take me on rounds to do the blood counts he was always teasing and flirting, especially with the nurses. After I had been in training for several weeks, Vern was at it again.
The funniest, yet sexist thing he said another time on the elevator with just him, me and about seven nurses. One of the nurses said to Vern just as the elevator door closed, “Gee Vern, you smell good, whataya got on?”
Vern didn’t miss this opportunity, he said, “A hard on, but I didn’t know you could smell it.”
I almost passed out from embarrassment, blushing and laughing so hard with everyone else that the elevator was rocking. When the door opened on the third floor the new passengers were hesitant to get on. Vern kept all around him loose. He was an excellent medical technician and taught me much about how to be “Professional” and relaxed in the environment of working at Children’s Hospital.
Eventually I passed the qualification test and was assigned to work as a floater on the evening 5:00 to midnight shift. After a few months I became one of the regulars having an assigned shift with a partner.
One Saturday morning shift after we had finished doing the urines, we went to breakfast in the coffee shop. We ordered our breakfast and the announcement came over the PA, “Hematology Lab please call Two West, Hematology Lab please call Two West, stat.” It was my turn to answer the pages, so I called immediately. I had to leave just as my breakfast arrived.
I arrived at Two West and saw more resident doctors than I ever ever seen in one place before. The receptionist gave me the requisition for the blood count and told me the patient was in the quiet room to the left.
I casually walked into the room and there were two resident doctors and a nurse in the room. The young boy was laying there as if in deep sleep. I imagined that I’d not even wake him up, since I was so fast sticking fingers. I pricked his middle finger, left hand and could barely get a bead of blood. I began to “Milk” the finger, but only serum would appear with little or no blood. I showed the resident doctor his finger with no blood and he said, “Here, I’ll fix it.” He took a small scalpel and slit the middle finger left hand and the blood began to flow. The child never flinched. I was shocked and sickened as I drew the blood from him. I rushed back to the lab to complete the blood count and call the results back to Two West.
I returned to the coffee shop to my breakfast of cold eggs, toast and coffee. There was not an empty seat in the shop and there was an energy in the air. Rumors were going from table to table that Children’s Hospital was going to do the first heart transplant on a child in Cincinnati that day. Vern, looked me in the eye and said, “Any trouble getting the blood?”
I said, “Yes, it was weird. The kid I stuck wouldn’t bleed.”
Vern laughed and said, “Heart transplant donors don’t bleed much.”
My eggs seemed like they were ice cubes. I could not finish them. Vern just smiled and said, “Good job, Mike.”
The PA blared again, “Hematology Lab please call Four West, Hematology Lab please call Four West, stat.”
I didn’t call. I just went to Four West answering the call in person. This time I was instructed to do a blood count on the girl in the quiet room to the right.
There were more resident doctors and the chief of surgery in the room with the young girl. She had several IVs and was sound asleep. I was very anxious when I pricked her finger, but the blood poured from her finger running down her hand to her wrist. I dry swabbed her finger to get the blood to bead and exited as quickly as possible.
When I returned to the lab, I was informed that I had just done the blood count on the heart transplant recipient.
This was a day I would never forget. I truly earned my $2.75 per hour this Saturday morning and I couldn’t wait for lunch as I was starving having missed my breakfast.
The transplant was successful. The news media in Cincinnati covered the story for the next three plus weeks.
The patient lost her battle due to the rejection of the heart. I did several more blood counts on her during the three weeks. I had two young daughters at home and suddenly their well-being and health became more prominent in my life.
Two or three months later in the spring I was working a midnight to 8:30AM shift on a Friday night. The “Midnight Shift” only had one tech working, so it could be very stressful depending on how busy the emergency room was.
This night at about 2:30 am just as I was about caught up with the heavy workload, I got a call from the ER for a CBC. The ER was still packed and I thought it’s never going to end. I picked up the requisition and the clerk told me the patient was in room three. I hurried to room and I was shocked as I walked in. A young girl was dressed as if she was a movie star with full make-up and her hair piled high atop her head was sitting there with her mother. I looked at the requisition and she was 17 years old. This was much older than most kids I did blood counts on. I didn’t know quite what to say or do. It was surreal. The ER was always loud with kids crying and parents stressed and resident doctors and nurses probing the kids. This was different. There wasn’t a physician nor nurse in the room. I hesitated and said, “Excuse me is this Dorinda?”
The mother replied as did the patient, “Yes, Dorinda.”
I said, “You are the best dressed patient I’ve ever done a blood count on.”
She said, “Sorry, I went to my prom tonight and got sick. So, here I am.”
It began to make sense to me now. I held her left hand in my left hand, as I swabbed her ring finger with alcohol.
She looked me in the eye and said, “Will this hurt?”
I said, “Not when I do it,” and she didn’t flinch as I pricked her finger. The element of surprise worked again.
I had to do three more blood counts in the ER before I headed back to the lab.
Dorinda was number 1 of 4. Her white blood count was 300,000. I thought I had made a mistake. Normal was in the 4,500 to 10,000 range. The other three were slightly above normal which was usual in the ER, but Dorinda’s was alarming.
The only children with a white cell count that I had ever seen that elevated all had leukemia. I was shocked. I hesitated to call the ER to report the white cell count. I was anxious. I thought how could such a beautiful young girl of only 17 have such a deadly disease. As soon as her differential smear was stained and ready to count, I put it under the microscope.
There were so many white cells that I was overwhelmed. I had never seen a smear like this. It was 90% lymphoblast which means she possibly had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Not only was her white blood count extremely high, but her hemoglobin was very low as was her red blood cell count. Medical technicians are not capable of diagnostic evaluations. We would just report the blood counts. I did not call the results back to the ER. I walked them to the resident physician on duty and reported them to her telling her about the high elevated white count and the lymphoblast on the differential. She came to the lab immediately to view the differential blood smear.
I was working a double shift, so I also worked during the day on Saturday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. I was exhausted after a very busy midnight shift, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Dorinda’s blood count.
After breakfast and coffee break we went out for morning blood collecting rounds. Dorinda was admitted and the requisitions for my collections included her. When I came to her room, she was now out of her prom dress, dressed in a hospital gown and there was no make-up and her dark brown hair was brushed and hanging long down her back.
She looked anemic and exhausted as I’m sure she had less sleep that I did during the midnight shift.
Her mother was still with her in her private “quiet room.” Doctor Bea Lampkin, an attending pediatrician and hematologist—oncologist was talking with Dorinda as I did my second blood count on her. She anticipated my finger prick this time and a quiet yelp came from her mouth.
Prior to Dorinda, I had gone about the business of doing blood counts and working as many shifts as possible to supplement my P&G salary, so that we could save enough money to buy a house. It was just a job, although I liked it and felt important to tell my family and friends that I not only worked at P&G, but also Children’s Hospital. I did several more blood counts on Dorinda as it seemed she was now living at Children’s Hospital.
Dorinda died a few weeks later from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
All the fun and humor that I had experienced working at Children’s was changed forever.
Laurel Jane was a quiet, timid, and shy young woman. She looked as if she was in middle school with her long, light brown hair ending just below her waist. I remember reaching down to shake her hand as our group leader Bill introduced me to her. I smiled and said, “Hello” looking directly into her eyes as Laurel glanced away awkwardly with her head down and muttered, “Hi, I’m Laurel Jane.”
I’ve never felt tall at just 5’ 10”, but after meeting Laurel I felt like a giant. She seemed at least a foot shorter. Bill had told me about Laurel. He said she graduated first in her Chemical Engineering class from Washington University in St. Louis with a 4.0 GPA. I had graduated just above 100 in my class of 208 from Newport Catholic High School, but I did get a C in chemistry. Laurel Jane was going to be my new boss. Procter & Gamble always hired the best and the brightest, the crème de la crème as we were told on a weekly basis. I had worked for the top-shelf Chem Es for 7 plus years and I was being rewarded now with the opportunity to be the first technician for Laurel Jane. Bill, who graduated from Purdue University in Chemical Engineering in 1966 was our boss. He told me that our Section Head knew that I was not shy and had a good reputation for getting along well with everyone and that he felt that I would be able to bring Laurel, “Out of her shell.” I was excited, but frustrated that Laurel was probably making about 50% more per year than I was as a lab technician, but I was in the top 90th percentile of techs as I heard through the grapevine.
Laurel and I had a meeting on Friday to discuss her/our project. She had been working on it for six months without a lab tech and it was time to take the project from the lab bench to the pilot plant. I was there to help scale it up. If we were successful, then we’d scale it up to experimental production at a P&G or a contract manufacturing plant. The balance of our meeting after Laurel’s 1-minute introduction was my 45 plus minutes of telling her how we’d have fun and there would be no problem with this product going national as I had never worked on anything in my career that had not gone national. She said, “We’ll see.”
When I came into work on Monday, there was a note in my in-box from Laurel. She had designed a rather long experiment of eight batches that she wanted me to make in the pilot plant and to subsequently package them in a variety of containers for stability testing in the 0-degree freeze/thaw, 40 degree, 80 degree, 90 degree/80% relative humidity, 120 degree and 140 degree rooms. This was a large amount of work to do for which I had no input. I was not happy. I had all the batches made, packaged and put into the stability testing rooms by Thursday. I told Laurel and she said, “Thanks.”
When I came into work on Friday morning there was a note in my in-box. It was another lengthy experimental design. Laurel had pluperfect cursive penmanship. I recognized it from my years of attending Catholic grade school and high school. I felt as if my head was going to explode. I was Laurel’s lab technician, not her “Servant.” I went to the locker room to cool out. I actually took a shower. I ran back to the lab and and then cautiously walked into Laurel’s office with the note she gave me. I sat it on her desk. She looked up at me and said, “Yes.” I looked down to her and said, “Laurel, can we talk? I read the note, but I have some questions concerning the design of the experiment. Maybe if we talk about it a little I won’t make any mistakes.”
Laurel said, “OK.”
This was my way of trying to get Laurel, “Out of her shell.” The meeting actually went well. I offered some insight as to a possible two more batches, which meant more work for me, but how it may save some batch making in the future. She liked my idea. This was a breakthrough. This process continued for months. I would always have an experiment designed by Laurel in my in-box and I’d take a shower to cool down and then discuss the design with Laurel.
I liked Laurel. I really did. The most fun is when she’d join me in the pilot plant to make batches. She’d have a white lab coat above her petite skirt and her very long hair would be pulled up into two buns on top of her head instead of hanging just below her waist. She suddenly looked like a Mouseketeer from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club in the late 1950s. Her squeaky little voice suddenly made sense. This helped to humanize her in a peculiar way.
Not only did Laurel write all of “Our” experiments to me, but she also wrote bi-weekly reports. The bi-weeklies were only done by the Chem Es or “Stupidvisors” as the lab techs often referred to them when out of earshot. I read all of her bi-weekly reports. They were perfect. Every detail of the project history, conclusions and future design were covered. If I could just get her to talk to me on a daily basis or at least a weekly basis, I’d be successful on my primary project which was to get Laurel Jane to communicate.
It had been almost six months now since I had met Laurel Jane and a very important right of passage was due for her. Traditionally the new hire Chemical Engineers in Research and Development would give a presentation of their project to the Director of Research & Developement.
Bill, our Group Leader and I were friends not only at P&G, but we ran together at lunch time training for our first marathon and also occasionally would have a drink a couple of times per month at a local disco. During our lunch run one-day Bill talked to me about Laurel’s upcoming presentation to Harry, the Director of R&D in our division. Bill wanted me to work with him to get Laurel, “Psyched” so that she’d, “Nail it.” He then told me that I would not be there, since the presentations were only done by the Engineer and the lab techs did not participate. I needed a run to the locker room and a shower about now. We were only about two miles into our 4.6 mile run and I felt the only way to have any power was to run as fast as I could and make Bill feel the pain I was feeling.
So, the process began for the next week. Every day Bill would have Laurel and me into his office to discuss the project. I knew exactly what to say and how to say it. The project was in great shape. We were primed for scaling up to the plant for making production size batches and then to do consumer testing with the product. This was all good news. Laurel could barely talk. Bill would ask questions and even quote Laurel’s bi-weekly reports of the excellent progress that “She” had made. But, Laurel just demurred. I could barely stay in the office. I did all I could to prompt her. I would ask her questions, thanked her for discussing the experimental design with me after our difficult beginning all to no avail.
The meeting with Harry was to be Friday at 8:30 am in his office. The day before Bill asked me not to sit in with him and Laurel as they went over the preparation for the presentation. I was livid. Not only was I not invited, now I wasn’t even considered as part of the project team. I went for a very long run at lunch time and not with Bill.
It was a beautiful Friday morning. I got to work as usual about 7:30 am, a half hour before the 8:00 start time. Laurel walked into the lab at about 7:59. I was already working at the lab bench. I said, “Hello.” Laurel just looked at me and nodded her head without a word. She hung up her coat in the office and briskly walked with her purse in tow to the rest room.
Bill came out of his office and asked me if I’d seen Laurel yet. I told him that she ran to the bathroom. He asked me, “Can you go get her?” I said, “Bill, I don’t use the women’s room, if you want her go get her yourself.” Just then Laurel walked into the lab very slowly. Bill asked her to step into his office for a few minutes before they headed off to Harry’s for the presentation. I’m guessing her was trying to relax her.
A few minutes later, they were off to Harry’s. I wished them well. Laurel said, “Mike there’s a note for you in your in-box. I have some batches I’d like you to get started on.”
I didn’t need a shower to cool down. I read the note and started weighing out the raw materials for the batches. I felt for Laurel. I really meant it when I wished her well.
About 20 minutes later Laurel came running into the lab and went straight into her office. She grabbed her purse and ran out toward the women’s room. About two minutes later Bill came walking into the lab with his hands in his pockets and a distressed gaze on his face.
He said, “Did Laurel come back to the lab?” I told him that she did and was in the women’s room I think. I said, “What’s going on? Didn’t Harry show up for the presentation?” Bill said, “Yeah, Harry showed up, but Laurel didn’t.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
Bill said, “It was unbelievable. Harry walked in a couple of minutes late and apologized saying he was stuck in traffic on the interstate and that he couldn’t wait to hear Laurel’s presentation. He told us that the project was going so well, that he had scheduled a meeting next Friday downtown at the General Office to meet with the Director of Advertising to see about increasing the budget on the project so that we could begin to do consumer testing. He wants Laurel to join the meeting and present her project to them similar to her presentation today.”
I said, “And then what happened?”
Bill said, “Nothing came out. Laurel opened her mouth and not a word came out. She moved her lips and we never heard a word. Not even a whisper. Harry then tried to help. He said, ‘Laurel, the project is going great. I’ve read all of your bi-weeklies and I get a good feeling about this. Look there’s some coffee, and bagels and tea and juice if you want. Help yourself and let’s just have a talk about what you’ve accomplished this year.’” Bill said Laurel stood up and ran out of the office.
I felt terrible for Laurel Jane. She had so much going for her. The top graduate in her Chemical Engineering class, hired by Procter & Gamble, a successful project in her first year and termination.
P&G had a very traditional route to promotion. They hired the best, the, “Crème de la crème” and they promoted the best. The rest went on to other companies. Laurel Jane eventually changed careers to work for the Environmental Protection Agency in Cincinnati. I even helped her move into her new apartment close to the EPA. I’ll never forget the impact Laurel Jane had on me. I learned to be silent at times, when I seldom would before. I learned to listen better than ever. I learned humility. I learned to speak up at the right time respectfully. I learned that there is life after Procter & Gamble and that it can even be better.
The Village Voice
SWF in search of a picnic on Labor Day. I have a picnic basket, a blanket, a bicycle and 2 bike passes for the Long Island Railway. You have wine preferably red, fresh baked bread, aged cheese and other assorted fruits of the vine. Excellent cardio fit required and Upper West Side preferred.
Dear SWF in search of a picnic.
I, like you, love riding my bike. I miss it though since I relocated to NYC from Ohio. The bike didn’t make the trip. My two favorite super markets on the Upper West Side are just a block from each other, Fairway is just a block and a half east of my apartment on W 74th St. and Zabar’s a block north of Fairway on Broadway. I’m on my way there now.
Do you know a good place to rent or buy a mountain bike? My preference is on and off trail.
Looking forward, Michael
Moving to New York City was exhilarating. Crashing on a futon with my younger brother for seven months in his Washington Heights one-bedroom apartment was gracious of Tony. Commuting on the subway, NJ Transit and a car pool to Piscataway, NJ daily was also worth the venture. My relationship with Patti had waned in the 2 plus years since she moved to Miami from Cincinnati for a tenure track assistant professor position in psychology. We both wound up on the East Coast, but it wasn’t conducive to intimacy. It’s like my friend Bill told me many years before, “She’s a GU, a geographical undesirable.” When couples are too close or too far apart, the relationship is stressed and he was right at least in this point of my life.
I struggled once I moved away from Tony. Getting a large studio apartment sublet on the Upper West Side on West 74th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue was the stimulus I craved. I had a full-time job working in research and development for Colgate-Palmolive. My commute was reduced to the number 1 or 2 train from 72nd Street instead of the A train from 192nd St. to Port Authority Bus Terminal. I would then take the bus from New York to New Brunswick, NJ. Of course there still was the car pool for the last three miles from New Brunswick to Piscataway, NJ.
I moved into my “Pad” on March 1, 1987. Just like every other NYC living arrangement, I endured mine. My landlady was Amy, a good friend and an excellent jazz singer. She was on the way up. Amy moved into the apartment in 1981 when rents were still affordable in the city and now I was the beneficiary. She only charged me $380 per month. The studio with a fireplace was completely furnished and even had an acoustic upright piano, all utilities paid including a telephone. I would have to pay for my long distance calls though. It was a 4th floor walkup with a view of the Phoenix House, one of the leading substance abuse treatment and prevention service providers in the United States just across the street. I was right in the middle between Riverside Park to the west and Central Park to the east. Many times I would have dinner, rather takeout, in the parks during the summer when the sun would set after 8:00. I had won the lottery.
There was just one little detail. Amy taught aspiring singers in the apartment every afternoon and evening Monday through Thursday and I was not able to enter until 8:00. A minor detail with such an arrangement to any newcomer to New York City.
Once fall set in and the early sunsets prevailed, I would be sitting in the hallway at 8:00 starving after my commute home from New Jersey with Vinnie’s pizza or Chinese takeout hot and ready for dinner at home in my NYC studio. I’d hear the last note ending the vocal lesson. I learned to sit back down instead of knocking on the door to enter my apartment. Amy was a gracious landlady and I was a respectful and gracious tenant. Usually the post vocal wrap-up would only be 15 to 20 minutes, but with my gourmet dinner cooling, I was ready to chow down. There would usually be a brief wrap-up with Amy also to discuss jazz gigs and relationship issues after her student left.
Amy had already brought the mail in and mine was sitting on the bar separating the kitchen from the living room.
There it was just waiting for me to open. A reply from The Village Voice Personals. My heart was pounding. Amy could see that I suddenly turned my attention from jazz to “Relationships.” Well, I didn’t really have a relationship, but I did get a response from my response to a “Voice” personal ad.
I patiently waited for Amy to leave so I could fantasize about how wonderful her letter was. Or was it a kind, let me down easy nuanced note. I was nervous and finally very carefully used a butcher knife to open the envelope making sure that it was attentively and respectfully opened.
I received your sweet note and want to invite you for dinner at my condo on W 72nd Street. I’ll cook this time and I’m looking forward to our picnic on Labor Day should we both enjoy our time together.
I have an extra bike to loan to you, it’s not a racer like mine. We’ll see if you can keep up.
Best regards, Trudy
PS – Please reply soon as timing is of essence.
Thanks for writing back. I’ve been running in Central Park every weekend and also working out at the YMHA in New Brunswick after work before I commute back to the city to make sure that I’ll keep up. I’m also running at lunchtime with several co-workers. I’ve run two marathons and being in shape is very important. How far do you think our bike ride will be on Labor day?
I’m free any evening. Just let me know what’s best for you to come for dinner.
Looking forward, Michael
I hesitated to put my phone number in the letter just as Trudy had done. I didn’t want to overstep boundaries, especially since my phone number was actually Amy’s phone. Amy checked messages daily and I didn’t want any drama to sting Amy’s or my ears as the song, “New York, New York! It’s a helluva town” filled my head.
Finally, I received a note from Trudy inviting me to dinner at her condo on the Friday before Labor Day. My heart was pounding as I dreamed about a long three-day weekend. Home-cooked dinner on Friday at Trudy’s. Breakfast on Saturday at a Greenwich Village Diner. Jazz and dinner in the Village Saturday night. A Sunday respite, as we don’t want to go too fast. And then the picnic and bike ride on Long Island on Monday, Labor Day. The mind can play serious tricks when seasons are changing and even though summer was coming to an end in three weeks, Labor Day always seemed to be the passage of summer to fall.
I arrived at Trudy’s condo half an hour early. I’m never late. I couldn’t have the doorman announce that I had already arrived 30 minutes early, so I took a slow walk through Riverside Park watching the sun set over the Hudson River and New Jersey. I had seen this many times before, but tonight I felt as if I was in a Woody Allen film. Time never passed so slowly. What did she look like? What was her voice like? What kind of great job did she have that she owned a condo on the Upper West Side of Manhattan? I knew I was in over my head. How old was she? I was going to turn 40 on September 27th and we had not exchanged photos or age or any of the important stuff. I started to sweat. My pulse was increasing.
“Hi, I’m hear to see Trudy. Can you announce that I’m here please?” I said to the doorman.
He replied, “Which Trudy? We have a few.”
I said, “A, you know Trudy, she’s on the 12th floor. She loves to ride her bike.”
He replied, “Yes, that Trudy. She’s in apartment 1212. I’ll announce you and then you can take the elevator over there.”
I replied, “Thanks”
The elevator must have made 8 stops on the way to the 12th floor. “New, York, New York, It’s a helluva town!”
I stepped out and 1212 was across from the elevator. As I rang the doorbell, I was beginning to sweat as if I was half way through a marathon on a ninety-degree day. I couldn’t imagine why I was so nervous. After two marriages and three children and two significant relationships after that, how could a near 40 year-old former baseball catcher and marathon runner be so uptight.
Trudy opened the door and smiled. She turned around and walked directly to the kitchen and uttered, “Come on in. Dinner is ready. I knew you’d be on time. I hope you like chicken.”
I couldn’t help but notice in the nanosecond that I saw her face that she had brilliant blue eyes and a blemish free complexion with light brown hair pulled away from her face. She must have been 5 feet 6 inches and 110 pounds at the most. She wore very little make-up and had running shoes on. I guessed she was mid-30s. The chicken smelled great. My olfactory and visual senses were on overdrive. But, I was cool, although sweaty to the core.
Dinner was incredible. Trudy had made Tandori Chicken with Basmati rice, cucumber salad, grilled veggies, roasted corn on the cob and finished off with Kulfi. I am a charter member of the clean plate club due to my mother’s persistence and Trudy asked me, “When was the last time you had a home-cooked meal?”
After the ice cream dessert, we settled into the living room. She actually had a living room, a kitchen, a dining room and 2 bedrooms, one which she used for her office to write. I was in way over my head. We had barely talked during dinner.
When Trudy spoke, “Is the chicken ok? Do you like the rice and the veggies?”
All I could say was, “Yes, it’s all good. Thanks. Do you always cook like this?” It was awkward, but the meal was excellent.
She put some jazz, well new age jazz, on the stereo and started the interview, I mean conversation.
“So what brought you to New York from Ohio? What city are you from? Did your career bring you here? Do you like it? Are you staying or just here for a while? Are you married or have you ever been? I hope you like to ride fast, because I’m going to push you Monday. Here’s the bike you’re riding Monday. It’s not bad, but mine is tuned up and I’ve been riding every weekend on Long Island and sometimes when I have time after work in Central Park.”
I replied, “Which question would you like me to answer first?”
She said, “Oh, I’m sorry. You can go in order if that helps you feel more comfortable.”
And so I did. I asked her if she worked from home since she had an office there. She explained that she got her PhD in physics, but that she was a better writer than physicist. She confided that she worked for a science magazine that I probably never heard of and that she had interviewed all of the astronauts and written articles about them. She said it pays very well and she liked it. We chatted for about 45 minutes and then Trudy said she had to be up early for a yoga class on Saturday morning and that she’d expect me at 9:00AM on Monday for our bike ride reminding me, “Don’t forget the, “Wine preferably red, fresh baked bread, aged cheese and other assorted fruits of the vine.”
I stood up and she walked me to the door, gently grasping me hand. She leaned in to kiss me on the cheek and smiled and said, “Have a nice weekend, see you Monday.”
I crossed the hall from Trudy’s apartment and still didn’t have her phone number, nor did she ask for mine. This was the most peculiar first or was it the last date I’d ever had. I couldn’t stand her up. While my Labor Day weekend plans were not quite what I had imagined, I still had a wonderful home-cooked meal, albeit Asian Indian by a non Asian Indian woman and a long, fast bike ride pending on Labor Day.
Now for a good night’s rest and breakfast alone on Saturday and Sunday mornings as usual. But, I still had my favorite jazz hang at Bradley’s on University Place in the Village, which is why I had moved to New York City in the first place, to hang out at the best jazz bar in the world.
The weather report was for low-nineties on Labor Day, so I wore running shorts and a t-shirt with running shoes. I didn’t have any biking tights so I knew my backside was in for a punishment nor did I have biking gloves. Even if I had tights, I’d be in for a punishment, because I hadn’t been on a bike since the summer before.
When I arrived Trudy was all business. She first gave me a lanyard with an ID badge on it for riding the Long Island Railroad with a bike.
She said, “Don’t lose this. They are difficult to come by and you have to wear it when you’re on the train with the bike.”
I said, “OK, thank you.”
And we were off. She said follow me. She took off full speed ahead on her way to Penn Station to board the Long Island Railroad for our trip to ride Trudy’s bikes to the Port Jefferson station nearby the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant.
The trip was approximately two hours and I was hungry once we arrived. I had breakfast alone at a diner around the corner from my apartment at about 7:00 am so that I would dare not be late for our date. It was about noon when we arrived and Trudy announced, “We’ll ride till about 2:20 and then break for our picnic and then head back to catch the train back to the city. Then we can have dinner at about 9:00 tonight. Do you like pizza?”
I was exhausted and starving and we had not even mounted the bikes for what now was going to be a 5-hour sprint as I had surmised. I was in way over my head. She said, “Follow me.” And I did. The hills were unbearable, but I had a 21 speed mountain bike, so plenty of low gears for the hill climbs. Trudy had a thin tire road bike and would glide both up and down the hills with what appeared to be a simple coasting through the park. I labored and labored and my butt was aching, but I would not give in. She patiently waited for me at the crest of each and every hill as I’d coast over the top so I could rest while coasting down the spiraling road. About 90 minutes into the ride, Trudy pointed out that we were actually a little ahead of schedule and that the picnic was only about 40 minutes away. Relief I did not feel, but I pumped and pumped always viewing Trudy’s butt from 25 to 50 yards in the rear.
The picnic was not important. What was important was the rest and to be off of her bike. It was all I could do to unpack her picnic basket with the picnic lunch. I never ate so slow in my life. I couldn’t open the wine as I forgot the corkscrew. Trudy laughed and said, “Forget me not,” and she opened it with her corkscrew.
She made sure that every speck of litter was off the ground including what was there prior to our landing. And then we were off.
She told me there was a shortcut on the way back to the train and if it was ok if we took it. “YES,” I chanted over and over. She just smiled and left me in her wake as she rode faster and faster. Trudy suddenly slammed her brakes on and grabbed her neck almost falling off the bike. I caught up and stopped next to her.
She was rubbing her neck and said, “I’ve been stunk by a bee., I’ve been stung. I’m allergic. We have to get back to the city. I may need to go to the hospital. Hurry follow me.”
I said, “Should we find a hospital here. Do you know where one is?”
She said, “No, I don’t trust them out here. We’ve got to get back to the city.”
It was not as hilly which allowed my exhausted 39 year-old body keep pace now. I think Trudy may have slowed her pace or I was just so overstimulated that I could only follow her every whim. I didn’t see a bee sting or swelling when she pulled her hand away from her neck. The last thing I wanted to do was challenge Trudy. I just wanted to get home. So, I followed her lead once again.
We made it to the station with 10 minutes to spare or we would have had to wait another hour. I was relieved and eager to get back to the Upper West Side and collapse since I had to be up at 5:30 am on Tuesday to begin my commute to work in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Once we were on our way Trudy started talking more than ever. She now seemed to be my new best friend. On and on she’d tell me stories of how she had worked so hard in school and how changing from being a physicist to a writer was the best thing she’d ever done. My head was nodding during her monologue. When I awakened the train was pulling into Penn Station. It was all I could do to stand up as my legs were like a young toddler learning to walk for the first time. I still had to ride the bike home to Trudy’s condo on W 72nd St. She reminded me as we started to ride that the Italian Restaurant on W 72 St. between Amsterdam and Columbus had great pizza and an excellent beer collection. All I wanted to do was drop the bike off at Trudy’s and crawl home stopping on the way at Vinnie’s pizza and get two slices to take home and collapse. Trudy would not hear of that.
We walked very slowly to the restaurant. It was packed. Every place in New York City was always packed even on Labor Day night. I hoped that it would be so crowded that it would be an hour wait and I could excuse myself to go home. Just then the hostess said, “We’ve just had an opening for two at the bar. Follow me.”
As we sat at the bar, the bartender started pitching the excellent beer selection.
I said immediately, “I’ll have a Heineken”
Trudy said, “Me too.”
Trudy looked at me and said to the bartender, “Large vegetarian pizza with everything and extra cheese. I’m buying.”
I said, “Fine.”
She looked me in the eyes almost romantically. I could barely keep my head above my shoulders as I was leaning over and to the left as far away from her stool as possible.
She teased me and said, “You win.”
I said, “I did, what did I win? I didn’t even know I was playing” as I took a large gulp of my Heineken.
She said, “The prize. You win. I’m going to sell my condo and buy a 3-bedroom condo in Teaneck, New Jersey and start my family. I’ve been planning this for the last year. I’m ovulating today and everything is perfect. You were able to keep up with me for five hours and you’re not a criminal and well it’s perfect. We can have sex after the pizza and then I can make the plans assuming everything works out and have my baby by next June. So see, all that fun we had today is worth it.”
I was shocked. I’m seldom speechless, but the look on my face must have been like a death sentence.
I looked Trudy straight in the eyes and whispered, “I’ve had a vasectomy.”
Trudy stood up with a look of total disgust and and screamed so loud that everyone in the restaurant could hear,
“YOU WHAT, YOU’VE HAD A VASECTOMY. WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?”
She then stormed out of the restaurant slamming her bottle of Heineken on the bar knocking it over and spilling it all over me. Everyone in the restaurant was staring at me. Just then the bartender came over with a large pizza and sat it on the bar saying, “What was that all about, you’ve had a vasectomy?”
I said, “Yes, but it didn’t work.”
I ate 2 slices of the pizza and it seemed like the best vegetarian with extra cheese I ever had. I finished my Heineken and the little left in Trudy’s bottle and paid Trudy’s tab. I walked home with a box of pizza and suddenly the life in my legs returned.
As I walked up the four flights to my studio apartment, I could hear my phone ringing. I rushed in and answered. It was Trudy.
She said, “Where is my ID badge for the Long Island Railroad you bastard? I know you have it.”
I said, “Here it is Trudy. It’s right where you left it. Around my neck. It’s safe. I’ll bring it over to you tomorrow or leave it with the doorman if you prefer.”
Trudy said, “Oh no you don’t. Those badges are hard to come by and I’m not letting you get away with it. I know where you live and I’m coming over right now to get it.”
I said, “OK, I’ll be down at the front steps for you.”
But, she had hung up. I went to the front window to look out for when Trudy would turn the corner to come onto W 74th when my doorbell rang. I answered it and she yelled, “Let me in.”
I heard her yell from my fourth floor window. I also heard her running up the steps as if it was a police raid. She banged on my door and I slowly walked over to it. After peeking through the peep hole and unlocking the two deadbolt locks and sliding the police lock I opened the door. She didn’t say a word. She lunged at me and ripped the lanyard and ID Badge from around my neck. Trudy ran down the stairs.
I repeated quietly as I stepped into the hallway outside of my secure studio apartment looking down the stairway,
“But it didn’t work. The vasectomy didn’t work.”
“Kids like it. It’s blue with a bubblegum flavor and sparkles on the toothbrush,” I was told during my annual performance appraisal. “You requested to have your own project and we’d like you to formulate Colgate Jr. Since you used to work at Procter and Gamble we thought you’d be excited to compete against them.”
Bob was the Manager of Oral Care and gave me the best offer I had ever had. I worked thirteen years at P&G as a lab technician and did have my own projects on two occasions. In the early 1970s my nickname was “Speckle Mickey” because I was covered in blue and green dye from making non-phosphate blue and green aesthetic speckles for Bold and Cheer detergents. I formulated and scaled the process from laboratory to national manufacturing as a technician. There was no promotion, since rarely did P&G ever promote techs to “Staff” in those days.
In the early 1980s I qualified two suppliers of nonwoven for “Choice” a development institutional wipe with P&G’s “Bounty” paper towels as the core and nonwoven as the top and bottom of the laminate. The product did well in consumer testing, but never made it to national market.
I left P&G in 1984 to produce live jazz in Cincinnati. After three years of artistic success, but major financial distress I moved to New York City to hang out in my favorite jazz bar, “Bradley’s” in Greenwich Village. My brother Tony was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights and was more than happy to let me crash on a futon in the corner of his bedroom.
I had enough cash to survive about two months paying my bills and child support. The anxiety was taking over my emotions. I had an all-day interview with Lever Brothers in Edgewater, New Jersey just two weeks after arriving. They were just trying to see what P&G secrets I would divulge in order to get hired. They never called me back. Panic was setting in. My mother back in Maysville, Kentucky called Tony and asked if he had any idea where I was. She said that my phone was disconnected in Cincinnati and that she was worried. Tony looked at me and said, “It’s Mom.” I got on the phone and told her that I had moved to New York and was staying with Tony and that I didn’t want to tell her until I had a job. It had been about seven weeks since I had last talked with her. Mom was livid as only she could be. I told her that I had an interview coming up with Colgate-Palmolive in a couple of days and that everything would be ok. She was not happy that her only two sons were now both living in New York. She was worried that she couldn’t find me. She wanted to invite me home for my birthday on September 27th. I was going to be 39. I apologized for not telling her that I had moved to New York. Then I asked her to float me a loan so that I could pay my child support. She did and she was not happy.
Fortunately, Colgate offered me a position as a research technician similar to my P&G experiences and told me that I would work in Oral Care which was their largest category.
I worked on a task force during my first year to resolve a stability problem with C-P’s Tartar Control toothpaste. I had proven my worth in a relatively short time and given the opportunity to formulate Colgate Jr. for the U.S. market. The goal was to be in national production within a year. Procter & Gamble had Crest for Kids already in the U.S. market for well over a year by now. Colgate was well known for being the best “Me Too” company competing against P&G. P&G was traditionally number 1 in the categories they competed in and C-P was usually number 2 or 3 and a year or two behind P&G launching a product.
When Bob offered me the opportunity to formulate Colgate Jr. my first comment was, “Is it only for boys?” Bob looked at me with confusion and said, “Of course not, it’s for kids like Crest for Kids.” I said, I’ve never known a girl named Jr., just boys.” Bob was not happy. He said, “Let marketing take care of their job. We just formulate.”
I accepted the offer, but I felt as if I wasn’t heard.
Bob explained that we wanted to make Jr. much more appealing to children than Crest for Kids. He said that our chief flavorist had already developed a flavor that would be preferred in a consumer test and that I had to get the formula ready to consumer test in three to six months. He gave me the list of product differences that I needed to build into the formula.
Instead of a blue opacified gel, we should have an aqua clear gel that you was tranparent. That way the sparkles would be more visible to the child with Jr. He also specified that the abrasive should be less hard since children’s teeth are softer than adult teeth and Jr. would be more gentle when brushing. The last thing was that instead of just dispensing a ribbon of toothpaste, Jr. would dispense as a star-shaped ribbon of clear gel with sparkles reflecting the light as it stood up on the toothbrush. Management felt that we would win a consumer test significantly against Crest for Kids especially since our flavor would be preferred.
We won 60 to 40 and were beginning the manufacturing scale up experiments when the bomb dropped. The flash point of our flavor was too low. It was a safety hazard and we could not produce the formula with the flavor as formulated.
Our chief flavorist would not budge. After all he was the number 1 toothpaste flavorist in the world as Colgate Toothpaste was number 1 in the world, but 2nd in the United States behind Crest.
We formed a task force again to resolve the issue. C-P was famous for task forces. It took about six months for the task force led by process engineer Sean O’Sullivan to determine that we could safely retrofit the plant in Jeffersonville, Indiana to receive and safely incorporate the flavor into the formula. There would be an additional time period of few months to do the construction at a cost of several million dollars. The new product Colgate Jr. was dead.
Steve, the chief flavorist announced at the meeting that he had formulated a new flavor that met the safety standards for flash point and that we should do a new consumer test. We did and while not winning 60 to 40 as initially, we won 58 to 42 which was statistically significant to proceed.
The scale up and national rollout of Colgate Jr. was achieved in the next four months. We were a little past the goal of national in one year.
I’ll never forget winning the “Colgate You Can Make A Difference Award” in 1988. The three of us shared the award together, Steve Shyman (Flavorist), Sean O’Sullivan (Process Engineer) and me (Formulator).
I was promoted from research technician to “Scientist” in 1988, the same year that Mom died of lung cancer in Maysville, Kentucky.
Colgate not only rewarded me with the promotion, but also transferred me to the plant across the Ohio River from Louisville on a temporary assignment so that I could be caretaker with my Aunt Betty for my mother for the last four months of her life.
Interference can come from anywhere. It can come inside your head. Maybe you have an exam next class or maybe your boyfriend or girlfriend just broke up with you. Are you tired or hungry or hung-over? It can be any kind of emotional stress, possibly there has been a death of a loved one or a friend. Try driving and texting at the same time. It can come from external distractions too. Just as you’re about to make an important point in your speech, a jet plane flies directly over your building and you have to almost scream to be heard. Then there are 45 seconds of quiet other than your voice still ramped up until the next jet passes over. The disruption continues the entire class period as The College of Mt. St. Joseph is on the landing and takeoff patterns of Greater Cincinnati Airport. Twenty-four speeches in one evening class with approximately 3 to 5 jet engine bursts per speech does interfere with delivery and comprehension of a speech.
During my first year teaching a speech class at Montclair State University in 1999 the initial interference was that over half of the class English was a 2nd, 3rd or 4th language. It made for an incredible learning curve of listening skills, but more importantly cultural appreciation. It is amazing how a group of students in a collective environment of apprehension coalesces to support one another.
One evening a young woman was delivering her informative speech and was about halfway finished. She was the last speaker for the evening. The entire class was attentive and I was feeling proud of her and also myself. I thought, this is my very first semester of teaching and I think they are progressing well. It felt good. I would always do critiques at the end of the class period of all the speeches for the evening and was looking forward to praising all of the speakers this evening.
A young Asian female student who would always sit in the last row of the class near the door who was timid and a very quiet speaker suddenly jumped out of her seat. She ran toward the front of the classroom screaming so loud you had to put your hands over your ears. Her tongue was wagging and she was spitting as if she were Michael Jordan about to slam dunk. Her hands were waving also and her right hand covered her right ear with her forefinger poking in and out of it. She got to the front of the class and no one knew what to do or what was happening. I stood up to approach her and she ran straight toward the podium and the speaker ran away in fear. Some of the students were laughing hysterically as others made peculiar faces at each other and me. As she pulled her finger from her ear, a little bug flew out as if it had just been struck by a guided missile. Its flight pattern was due east and losing altitude rapidly. The entire class all tiptoed and rubbernecked to get a better view. The little bug landed safely just in the aisle that the student sprinted through. She looked down at the insect and stepped over it with tears in her eyes as she hobbled back to her seat.
Two minutes had passed and the speaker said to me, “Should I start my speech over or just pick up where I left off?”
I nodded to her and said, “Whatever works better for you.”
She picked up where she left off. I got the feeling she wanted to end as soon as possible.
“OK”, she said and then she slowly began to pick it back up.
Then the little bug started its takeoff. It seemed to run a few steps and then was airborne once again. It got to about four feet off the floor and headed directly toward the exit door. The young Asian student screamed an inaudible sound that alerted all that the war was on. She now ran directly toward the approaching pterodactyl as if her life and ours depended on it. The joust had begun anew. Both demurred. The tiny insect touched back down just next to my seat. All eyes once again were on it and me.
The speaker asked me, “Are you taking points off my speech for this? I don’t know what to do. I’m going to just finish now.”
Before I could respond, I stood up and hovered over the intruder. I knew what to do. I lifted my right foot. I lowered it making sure not to miss. Several in the class shouted, “Aww” and were frustrated that I took a life. Others screamed, “Yes” and laughed as if I was George Carlin. Others just looked in shock and disbelief that any of this took place. I said, “I think it’s ok to finish your speech now.”
She did and her 5 minute to 6 minute speech was now 10 minutes. I told her that this was a very special occasion and that I would not hold her responsible for the overtime.
During the critiques I usually begin with the last speech of the class and work my way back to the first speech. We all had a good laugh about the interference that invaded our academy this specific evening as I attempted to act as if I knew what to do.
“Class Valedictorian, 1st team all-state in basketball, 1st team all-state in volleyball, 4 year academic scholarship to an Ivy League University and 7 1/2 months pregnant,” she said as she stepped from behind the podium addressing the class.
I’ll never forget her attention getter for her first persuasive speech. She was 5 feet 11 inches, but appeared 6 feet 3 or more with her hair puffed out and at least 2 inch heels on. As she stepped away from the podium she lifted her loose fitting, bulky sweater to just below her breasts, exposing her tiny baby bump with her bellybutton protruding at least two inches to the students and me. I thought, Now that’s a prop. All were shocked at her disclosure. Not one of us in public speaking class knew that she was expecting. I sure didn’t.
“Yes, I’m pregnant. I had a major decision to make this past spring during my senior year in high school. I chose to not go to Harvard or even go away to college. I chose Northern Kentucky University. My boyfriend is away at college now.”
She went on to explain how the most difficult decision she ever had to make came from doing her research. Before she told her parents, she talked with a few of her high school friends from the Catholic all girls high school about their decisions to have an abortion. They were all honor students and athletes and she confided in them seeking insight of what to do.
She and her boyfriend considered that she would have an abortion. She talked with her parish priest and then finally with her parents about the decision that she had made.
“I had to make the most difficult decision that a woman may have to make in her life. I chose to have my baby. Yes, in the United States we have the right to choose. And my choice is to have my baby. I thought about abortion every day. I thought about having the baby and giving it up for adoption. But in the end I made the choice to have my baby. Yes, we have the right to choose and I chose life.”
I was never so impressed with her choice of topic and life decision. She was doing her speech on “Pro Choice.” Her choice was life and not “Pro Life.” She was not passing judgment. She was sharing her critical thinking to the possibilities.
She said, “Who am I to judge my friends who had an abortion? They made their decisions. I made my decision. Oh, by the way Professor, my baby is due on final exam day. Can I do a make-up exam if I miss the day?”
I replied, “Yes, we’ll work it out.”
She then showed her second prop after her “baby bump.” She held up the ultrasound of her child to the class.
Several of the female students asked, “Is it a girl or a boy?”
She replied, “I don’t know and I am fine. All is well and I’m ok with either. I just hope she or he is healthy.”
She shared how her decision to have her child was very difficult to make. That she would be giving up going away to Harvard and that she could possibly be judged for her decisions becoming pregnant and the aftermath.
She explained, “The right to choose is the greatest part of being an American. We have the right to choose our paths in life. There are many obstacles depending on a person’s social economic standards, their gender, their race or ethnicity, their religion, but the choice is always ours to make. I made my decision and I’m happy with it. It may be a different decision for you. I’m not here to judge.”
She shared graphs and statistics concerning abortions in the United States prior to “Roe v Wade” becoming the law on January 22, 1973 as well as data post-1973.
She stood tall and committed to her life-altering decision and to her speech. When she concluded, she received a standing ovation. Anyone who witnessed her personal testament could not help but be happy for her.
As she walked back to her seat, I called the next speaker’s name. I don’t recall her name or her speech. Many students kept chatting with her and laughing and smiling. They were so excited about her decision.
I sat there wondering if they were pleased and supportive because she decided to birth her child versus having an abortion. I was supportive because to me she gave the best “Pro-Choice” speech I had ever witnessed. I was also pleased that she decided to have her child. I firmly believe in the right to choose and I believe she made the right decision in her life. But, who am I to judge her or anyone who may choose an alternative.
She had her baby the last week of school before the final exam. She returned to class for the exam and brought a photo of her newborn. I have never seen so many students happy on final exam day. They were happy for her. I was happy for her. I have no recall whether she had a girl or a boy.
I do remember that she received an A for the semester.
Persuasive speeches are more difficult than informative speeches. You take sides. You espouse a cause. You alienate friends at times. I save the two dreaded persuasive speeches after the dreaded initial introduction speech of a classmate, and the two dreaded informative speeches. I explain that they are now prepared to take a stand to persuade but still be informative, but be so informative that the listener will gain insight into a subject that they have not considered of opposing ideas to theirs before. It’s a difficult terrain to challenge personal opinions and often an intimidating assignment that few would choose to do.
The second last speaker of the day had the highest grade in the class so far. She had transferred to an urban public school in Northern Kentucky from an affluent suburban public school just seven miles away. Her mother and father had divorced and she decided to live with her dad. Her classmates did not like her. She was a junior in high school and most of them were seniors. It was a high school dual-education class where the students would receive high school credit plus college credit. The students had to have a high grade point average as well as a good score on the ACT test to be accepted into the class.
Her speech topic was about her becoming a vegetarian. She had some samples that she passed to the class that she made for them. They were very tasty. She also had some research and graphs that illustrated the health benefits and cost benefits to the government to less obesity due to a healthy diet. She was very persuasive and the snacks were good as well. She concluded her speech with the reason she became a vegetarian.
She said, “I didn’t like the concept of killing animals to eat. It didn’t feel right to me, so I did a lot of research about vegetarianism and decided to try. I’ve been a vegetarian for over a year now and I’ve lost twenty pounds and I’m down to size five from a ten. There was a tepid hand clapping from the carnivorous group of peers with the exception of me and her best friend who sat right next to her every day showing our appreciation. He was also a junior and I think he had a crush on her. She was the alpha-female in this relationship and he knew it. I thought of him as her little “Puppy dog.”
The last speaker of the day walked to the front of the class to the podium. She was the alpha female of the seniors and the direct opposition.
She began, “How many in here are Pro-Life? Raise your hands. OK, 21. How many are for abortion? Raise your hands. Zero. What? Not any of you are for abortion? Professor, what about you? I figured you’d be all for abortion listening to your lectures and stuff.”
I responded, “Well, I’m not for abortion, but I am Pro-Choice”
She said, “Same thing.”
I said, “Not the way I see it. I would prefer that if a woman was facing an abortion that she would choose to have the baby, or if she couldn’t see herself keeping it that she could let it be adopted. So, I’m not for abortion, but I am for a woman’s right to choose. Who am I to judge her decision, and it’s also the law. I think it would be possibly the most difficult decision to make in her life.”
She said, “OK, so how many are Pro-Choice then? 1, 2, 3.”
She wrote them on the board, Pro-Life 21 and Pro-Choice 3. She also asked if there were any undecided and she wrote zero on the board.
Just as she was about to continue her speech, a senior female student in the back of the class stood up and pointed her finger at the vegetarian and screamed, “You, who do you think you are? You come in here and preach to us about how you’re a vegetarian and how healthy it is, blah, blah, blah. And what, you say that the reason you became a vegetarian is because you don’t like killing animals to eat. Well you raised your hand being for abortion. So that makes you a BABY KILLER, you’re a BABY KILLER.”
My heart was pounding. Several of the other students now also stood up and started ranting in unison as they pointed their fingers at the vegetarian with a cacophony of, “BABY KILLER, BABY KILLER.” The little “Puppy dog” just sat there trying to hold her, but she kept pulling away trying to stand up and shout back.
I stood up and said, “Well, I guess that makes me a Baby Killer too.”
The chanting subsided and they all sat down.
The speaker was Pro-Life and she did a good job in spite of the other 20 vocal collaborators. Since this was the last class of the day and with the interruption, I was not able to do my critique of the six speeches. It was also a Friday and there was a football game that night so they all rushed to the door laughing and ignoring what had just happened as if it had never happened.
I was packing up up the speeches as well as the student critique papers of the speeches, which were sprawled all over the front desk. I erased the board, and shut down the computer and turned off the overhead projector. In the back of the classroom were the vegetarian and the “Puppy dog.” She was crying and he was trying to console her. It was sad and awkward.
I walked back toward them and she glared at me and said, “I’m dropping this class, these fuckin’ hillbillies. I can’t take it anymore.”
I responded, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! No name-calling.”
She said, “What about BABY KILLER, BABY KILLER?”
I said, “You’ve got a point. I’ll take care of this on Monday when we get back to class.”
She said, “Well good luck, 'cause I won’t be here. I’m outta this class.”
I said, “Please don’t drop the class. You just asked me to write a letter of recommendation for you for college next year when you’re a senior. I told you of course. You have the highest grade in this class. You’re doing exactly what I’ve asked all of you to do. You’re a leader. You choose difficult topics, you research them well and you present them as if you’re a communication major in her junior or senior year of college instead of high school. I promise you I will take care of this on Monday when we return.”
She said, “What am I supposed to do Monday at school? You can bet that all day Monday, everybody at school will know about this and the whole school will hate me.”
I said, “Trust me, please. It will be OK.”
I felt terrible. I thought of nothing else all weekend. The next round of persuasive speeches was to continue on Monday. She did not deserve this treatment.
As class began on Monday, the names of speaker numbers 7 through 12 were on the board. The students who were to speak were loading their PowerPoint presentations onto the computer. They were joking and laughing as usual before the speeches began, except for the vegetarian and the “Puppy dog.” It was as if nothing had happened Friday with the exception of we three who were Pro-Choice.
I usually make announcements prior to beginning the speeches, but I changed it up this day. I had thought hard about what happened on Friday. I told them that we began our persuasive speeches on Friday with a bang. There was much laughter and agreement except for two.
I then said, “Respect is the most important aspect of giving a speech and listening to a speech. Persuasive speeches always get people going and this class is no exception. No matter what the topic I’ve never seen 100% agreement in all my years of teaching and I suspect I may never see that. It’s our responsibility to respect the speaker even when we don’t see eye to eye with them or the subject. Name-calling is a definition on page 34, ‘The use of language to defame, demean, or degrade individuals or groups’ that we all are held accountable for. Let’s not forget that.”
I never mentioned Friday’s incident, nor did I mention names or subjects. All were quiet. I then called the first name and said, “I look forward to your speeches today. Let’s be respectful. Let’s have fun.”
And we did.
Be at Your Best
I love live jazz. It’s all about time. I like live music even when it’s not jazz. It would be difficult to be at my best reporting to work at 8:00 am often during the disco era of the 1970s. Many of the clubs had live music, but most evolved to rotating light shows above and on the dance floor with eardrum breaking, pulsating backbeat songs such as Brick House, Le Freak, Stayin’ Alive or I will Survive. Whenever I hear RAP or House Music today, I immediately want to dance, but my students ask me to please not do that as I pull my collar up, unbutton my shirt to just above my navel and get that look on my face of ecstasy and then we all laugh hysterically.
Most students come to class prepared for their speeches. I can see it in their body language, their eyes, their nervous chatting to each other and me about how they can’t wait for this to be over. I love seeing them mature when delivering a speech. It happens at various times during the semester. Being prepared means different things to each student.
Being on time is very important. Seldom can a student walk right into class and deliver a good speech, but it does happen. Have you ever known someone who is always late? They have a different sense of time than most of us. It is always disruptive when it happens. They arrive late for a meeting, for dinner, for a movie, or even their wedding. Arriving late when you are scheduled to give a presentation or a speech is not the best attention getter.
I always ask my students to not enter the room when someone is giving a speech. I ask them to remain outside and enter when they hear the clapping at the end of the speech. Most do this. One student would honor this protocol for all five of her speeches. She knew that she was the second speaker scheduled on her specific day. She would wait patiently outside of the door and then make her entrance as we were clapping for the speech just finished.
The door would open and she would rush in huffing and puffing and sweating profusely as she sat her backpack on the floor next to the only desk that she could find that was vacant. Gasping for air, she’d walk slower to the front of the room, giving me a copy of her speech, and lay her speech copy on the podium as she would breath loudly and deeply staring directly at me. I would then call her name out as the next speaker which all could plainly see written on the whiteboard as speaker number two. She’d unleash a few more deep breathing gasps.
Then one last gasp for air by her and, “Good Morning Professor and class.” The drama queen would then control the class for 5 plus minutes with total abandon. Every speech was an A. I only wish all of my students were as accomplished as she was. I never took points off for her entrance, since she honored the do not enter rule. The students loved her speeches just the same as I did. We all learned that if you research and write a great speech and practice, that you can deliver a great speech if you have the confidence. She was full with confidence. I used to think about deducting points since she would be just in time, but I never did.
Some students as I had mentioned earlier were on time and anxious. One first semester freshman who was a drummer in a rock band was in the same class. He was always on time when he came to class which was about two thirds of the time. He never missed his speech day. His attention getter however was forever memorable as well.
“Goooood Morn, Mornin’, Goood Morning uh Professor, I mean you know Professoooor and my fell, fellllow um mates. How ya’ll doin”? Me too, like uh I feel great. Hey, din’t I see you like at my gig last night. Yo, yeah you. You like jazz Professor, right? You should come, come uh see me sometime.”
His speeches went downhill from there. He was having so much fun. And so were we. We all laughed so loud that a professor from next door came over and opened our door to see what the hysteria was about. The speaker just looked at her and said, “Hey, come on in Bitch.” I stood up and apologized and said I’d take care of it. She was not happy.
I posted the mid-term grades on the school website for all of the students to review. He received a D for the mid-term, with an F for his two speeches and a high B for the mid-term exam. I wrote him a note asking him to please see me in my office during office hours to discuss his grade. He never came by. The next class after mid-terms he stopped by to ask me what I wanted to talk to him about. It was about 7:50 am, 10 minutes before class was to begin. I asked him, why he thought he received a D for his mid-term grade.
He said, “I don’t have a clue. I love your class. I tell all my friends how you’re the best teacher I have and that it’s so much fun. I’m doin’ better in your class than all my others. What am I doin’ wrong?” I explained to him that he was too relaxed. That he was not prepared to deliver his speeches.
He countered with, “Oh I know, I’m out too late on the nights before I give my speeches. I play gigs, I’m the drummer. And we usually play till 1:00 am and then after packing up, we usually party all night long and then I come to class. I’m never late and I just love to improvise like I do when I play drums. The class seems to love my speeches. What’s the problem?”
I looked him in the eye. I very calmly said, “You come to class not hung over, you come to class still drunk. That’s why you feel that your speeches are fun. That’s why we laugh so hard, because you have not prepared a speech, but you just improvise on whatever comes to your mind in the moment. I’m not judging you. I want you to come to class sober and deliver your next speech that you researched and wrote and practiced before delivering it to the class.” I asked him if he ever read the notes I wrote back to him from his previous two speeches.
He said, “No, they’re in my van somewhere with my drums and stuff. I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better. Can I still get an A, do you think?” I said, “No, you can’t get an A, but here’s the best you can do. If you get one hundred percent on the remaining speeches and final exam and do the extra credit assignments. You can get a B if you ace everything.”
He got a C for the semester. It was amazing to see the difference in his performance and his demeanor. He was still hilarious, but he was prepared.
The class loved him.
We all did.
I would go out four to five nights a week to have dinner and see live jazz. I prefer acoustic with a grand piano, upright bass, and a drummer who knows how to drive the band. I love small ensembles, usually a quartet and a singer like Billie Holiday.
I lived in a loft in downtown Cincinnati just across the Ohio River from Northern Kentucky. My usual hang was at Chez Nora in Covington in the Mainstrasse area. My routine during spring through fall was to ride my mountain bike in the late afternoon along the Ohio riverfront. I’d work up a great sweat and appetite. I’d ride for about an hour. After showering I’d be out the door totally relaxed to drive the one mile to Mainsstrasse for a light dinner and jazz. It was such an easy drive across the bridge. My car windows would be open weather permitting and the rush of air would feel as if I was still riding my bike. I’d usually have a jazz CD playing or listening to classical music on 90.9 WGUC-FM.
One particular Thursday evening I was feeling very relaxed as I began my commute to Covington. When riding my bike, I always feel as if I’m a teenager again. Teaching communication courses to young college students at Northern Kentucky University takes much creativity and energy to relate with them and I love the challenge and the fountain of youth feeling it gives me. Hanging at jazz gigs always replenished my less than nimble 62-year-old mind and body.
Guinness, light dinner, jazz and the after dinner liqueur Sambuca in a brandy snifter with three coffee beans which represent health, happiness and prosperity are the perfect ending to a long day.
This routine only changes with the dinner special and band Du jour at Chez Nora I thought.
On the way down Central Avenue I missed the green light to turn right onto 3rd street. There was no right turn on red at this intersection. My windows were opened and I was listening to a jazz cd as a non-alcoholic aperitif. The annoying red light often times could be three to four minutes and I was especially hungry. A large SUV with five young women who could have been high school or college students screeched to a halt next to me. The decibels of sound from their open windowed, eighteen-wheeler sized vehicle demanded my attention. I glanced over and was eye to eyes with a quintet of overzealous joyful youth. I didn’t recognize the song, but I did tap my foot to the beat as my head began to nod as well. They were laughing nearly as loud as the tune they were playing. I cranked my volume as loud as possible as did they. I lost.
We all laughed.
The light changed and I cautiously began my commute to Kentucky as the SUV started as if it was a drag race squealing tires and getting rubber. I glared once again and heard the young woman riding shotgun scream as loud as she could, “Grandpa” as they all laughed while fishtailing down Central Avenue toward the riverfront.
I did what any testosterone driven male would do in such an instant. I pondered who was she screaming at as I glanced into my rearview mirror discovering that she meant me while flooring my SUV doing a U-turn. I turned right onto Central Avenue and caught up with them at 2nd and Central right next to Paul Brown Stadium just as the light turned red. I was still on their right and we both were turning left. Suddenly, when I glanced back toward them, there was silence, a moment of détente. They had turned their music down as well. My jazz cd was now at room volume. We could have had a quiet conversation. I looked her straight in the eye once again and shouted in kind to her “Grandpa” with “Bitch.”
They had a look of shock and fear as to what I’d do next.
Then I realized that I was somehow at another red light waiting to turn left onto the bridge to continue my journey as I had so many times before. I wished that I had done the U-turn. I wished that I had shouted, “Bitch.” I wished that I was a teenager again and having fun with my friends.
I imagined that in the insulated, metropolitan area of greater Cincinnati that the small town environment that one day I would return the favor to the young women. I fantasized that one of them may be in my class at Northern Kentucky University as I tell this story to my students as an example of story-telling that she would look at me with a mea culpa expression and say, “Was that you? I’m so sorry”
Billie Holiday is my favorite artist and Van Gogh is my second favorite. My BA degree with a double major in Sociology and Media Arts came in 1994. The spring semester of ’93 was my busiest ever with 21 credit hours and a 3.87 semester average. Professor John Debrizzi was my favorite teacher and taught me Visual Sociology in spring 1993 and Sociological Theory in Summer 1993.
I traveled to Washington, DC for the August 28, 1993 Martin Luther King Jr. Thirtieth Anniversary March on Washington and produced my first documentary photography essay.
Work in Progress
I had wanted to go to the original Martin Luther King Jr. March on Washington on August 28, 1963, but my mom had other ideas. Baseball was a priority as well. I had never been out of Kentucky or Ohio. I told Mom I’d like to go to the March on Washington. She said, “Are you crazy?” I took that as a no. My baseball team, the Newport Yankees, was in the National Knothole Baseball Tournament in Cincinnati. We won the championship 10-0 on Sunday, August 24th. I was the catcher and got 4 hits in 4 times at bat. I was 15 years old. My life was only downhill after that, till March 4, 2012 when I married Megan.
Life has been adventurous with 2 previous marriages ending, 5 career changes, 1 failed attempt at a college degree and 3 graduate school degree dropouts as well. When I received my BA in August 1994, I was 46 years old and I reveled in the fact that it only took 29 years since high school graduation to receive the 1st degree. Two plus years later I had a Masters in Communication just 4 months prior to my 49th birthday. I took only 1 photography course in undergrad at Jersey City State College and 1 photography course for 6 credits during the Masters in Communication at Montclair State University. I took 3 more courses for 12 quarter credits in the graduate program at Savannah College of Art and Design in the fall of 1996 and 32 quarter credits at the University of Cincinnati in 2001 and 2002. Janie Alden Stevens who taught me photography at UC was the best photography professor ever.
As a MFA graduate student at the University of Cincinnati Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) in the Spring quarter of 2002, I proposed a conceptual photo to the committee for the 1st-year review prior to beginning the 2nd year. It was a right of passage to show progress in the program. A student could do the review three times before graduation. I failed the review. I was not pleased nor was my committee. It was a scheduled 20-minute review with all of my key images from 2 1/2 quarters. There were four DAAP professors on the committee, including the Graduate Chairperson, a painting professor, a sculpture professor and an electronic media professor. There was not a photography professor on the review committee this quarter as they would alternate annually. My photography professor Janie Alden Stevens was present, but regulations prevented her from participating in the review. I had some preliminary images from my latest conceptual project which I was calling “Strange Fruit” inspired by the song by Billie Holiday and poem by Lewis Allan. I often would be stimulated in my photography by previous artistic works.
I had produced a conceptual photography essay, “Invisible Man” inspired by the Ralph Ellison novel from 1952, during the graduate school photography class at Montclair State University. I used the 12 images from “Invisible Man” in my portfolio application to be accepted to UC. I was the 1st alternate and fortunately the top student rejected UC’s scholarship to attend Indiana University. I was shocked to be accepted and with a full tuition scholarship as well as teaching assistantship of one photography class per quarter. I was an adjunct instructor teaching 3 classes at Northern Kentucky University and 1 class at the College of Mt. St. Joseph simultaneously. I was busy and fulfilled until I failed the 1st year review.
The review was coming to a close. I felt as if I would pass. My 20 minutes were up. Then I was asked one last question, “Is there anything else you would like to add, any new ideas?” I responded, “Not really. I’ve got something in my mind. I had a dream about it, but haven’t worked on it yet.”
The chairperson persisted and said, “We have a little more time, tell us.” I made the biggest mistake of many mistakes in my lifetime. I shared the dream. One professor screamed, “No, no you can’t do that. No, no, no! That’s not acceptable. No, no no!” Another professor then took me to the wall to review a few of my images that I had produced in his electronic media class the previous quarter for which I received an A. He even allowed me to change from it being a 3 quarter credit course to 4 credits due to the amount of work I produced. He had not commented negatively during the review and now was deriding the work. The chairperson then questioned me of how could I ever conceive of such an image.
I was perplexed. I’m not shy. I never back-down. I shouted, “It was just a dream. I’m still thinking about it. What is the problem here?”
The next first-year review student was watching this unfold as she had entered the gallery to hang her paintings. My review ended. I had to take my work down and then go to my graduate photography class with Janie. Janie walked over to me and said, “If you want to miss class today, it’s OK.” I said, “No, I’ll be there but probably a little late as I have to put my images back in my darkroom.” I was about 20 minutes late and the students knew when I entered that something was amiss.
I met with Janie after class in her office to discuss the review. She could not really comment specifically about my review. It would not have been appropriate for her to agree or disagree with the committee. But, she was sensitive to my emotions.
I had made up my mind to forgo the second or third opportunity to pass the first year review. I announced that I was leaving the program after this Spring Quarter. I had been having negative feelings about the passage that film photography was making to digital photography and the 1st year review failure was the coup de grâce. I could not envision myself teaching digital photography as a professor. I received the official failure from the 1st year review committee two weeks later, but I had already withdrawn from the program.
The inspiration from my dream and the 1st year review experience led to my two contact sheets, seventy-two images, six feet by eight feet black and white mural.
Twin Memorials Strange Fruit
It was the first anniversary of the young, 19-year-old black man, Timothy Thomas’s death by a police officer in Cincinnati which resulted in “The Riots.” Timothy Thomas had been shot and killed by Cincinnati Police off duty officer, Steven Roach. Steven Roach was not indicted by a grand jury. He subsequently quit the Cincinnati Police for a position with the Evendale Police in a suburb of Cincinnati. My image was a contact sheet of the memorial at the site of Timothy Thomas’s death and a contact sheet of the Police Memorial at Police District One side by side. I received my first A in graduate photography for the 10 quarter credits as well as 2 independent study credits for the project.
I was able to use my darkroom at DAAP as well during the summer of 2002 to produce images for my first book, “Americans Revisited Volume I” published on July 4, 2008 by Edgecliff Press as an homage to Robert Frank’s, “The Americans” which was published in 1958. I traveled to 12 cities of the 43 that Robert Frank had visited in 1955 and 1956.
New Haven, CT
My visual-sociology approach to conceptual photography had now met much resistance for the second time.
I never returned to UC.
While my one year in the MFA program at the University of Cincinnati ended prematurely, I feel that I matured personally and as a photographer due to the experience.
“Invisible Man” in the Summer of 1995 also created much tension with Professor Klaus Schnitzer. Klaus was an excellent photographer with an MFA from Ohio University. He was the chair of the photography department at Montclair State University. During the weekly critiques he once asked me, “Why do you keep doing this project about interviewing or hiring Black people? I interview black people because I have to.” I responded, “Only because you have to? That’s why I’m doing this project.” I survived the class. I learned much about printing my images, although I was barely an adequate printer. I received a B+ for 6 credit hours. I was plus/minus in my feelings. I was relieved to receive a B+, but somehow felt that my project may not have achieved my goal of visual sociology. I realized that there was a visceral reaction to my project not only from the professor, but also from the other students.
I had the 12 images from “Invisible Man” enlarged to 30 by 40 inch prints at Modernage in New York City. Modernage was know as the best printer in NYC. I entered 2 of them to the Photography 17, Perkins Center for the Arts annual photography exhibit and shared first prize.
“Emasculation” appeared in the Sunday February 15, 1998 New York Times review of the exhibition.
“J. Michael Skaggs of Bayonne has the largest prints (30 by 40 inches) in the show. ''Emasculation'' is an impressive image of time-lapse photography. As the dark, shadowy figure moves toward the first doorway, he brings to mind some of the surreal effects often used by Duane Michals. However, Mr. Skaggs is delivering a social message. The artist says the doorways, which recede into the distance, represent the centuries since the first slaves were brought to the Carolinas as well as the decades since affirmative action was first proposed. The photograph stands on its own as an enigmatic composition. Even if it is a whisper rather than a shout, the narrative enhances the interest.”
I’ve never been happier. Megan and I collaborate on conceptual photography and poetry projects and I teach Public Speaking and Race, Gender and the Mass Media courses at Northern University. Our “Pain” project of Megan’s poems and portfolio of my photographs of Megan was to be released in 2016 by Larkspur Press. We had a handshake to publish that was rescinded in the spring of 2016 after a 2-year gestation.
Body as Lighthouse
I also curate and participate in two photography exhibits, with Fall and a Spring opening receptions at Northern Kentucky University in the College of Informatics Advising Center Gallery annually.
The Spring 2016 Exhibition that I curated at the Advising Center of the COI had an open theme. Eight photographers submitted images. This was the 9th exhibition as we were beginning our 5th year. Several photographers had stopped by my office to compliment me on the exhibit and how colorful it was. Other faculty and staff members of the department commented positively as well.
I entered two images.
Twin Memorials Strange Fruit
My images were 2 feet by 3 feet aluminum prints to commemorate the 9 members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina who were murdered by 21-year-old Dylann Roof on June 17,2015 as well as April 7, 2016, the 15th anniversary of Timothy Thomas’s death in Cincinnati. I thought of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.
“Strange Fruit” Artist Statement
I’ve driven from Cincinnati northbound on I-71 numerous times. I always saw the barn with the Confederate flag painted on the roof at the 38-mile marker and would just wonder why. On Monday June 23, 2015, I was on my way to Yellow Springs, Ohio and saw the barn again. The murders of 9 members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015 came to my mind.
“Twenty One year-old Dylann Roof later confessed that he committed the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war… A website apparently published by Roof included a manifesto detailing his beliefs on race, as well as several photographs showing him posing with emblems associated with white supremacy… Roof's photos of the Confederate battle flag triggered debate on its modern display.” wikipedia.org
I returned to mile marker 38 on June 28th to see if the barn had been painted over. It had not. I photographed it.
This is the site of a speech that led to the Supreme Court decision; Brandenburg v Ohio 395 U.S. 444 (1969).
“In the summer of 1964, Clarence Brandenburg, a leader in the Ku Klux Klan, gave a speech at a Klan rally. Because of this speech — which included remarks accusing the United States government of suppressing the “Caucasian race” — he was convicted of advocating violence under the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Statute. The syndicalism law made it illegal to advocate “crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.
After his initial conviction, Brandenburg agreed to be represented by the ACLU of Ohio. Volunteer attorney Allen Brown took the case and the national ACLU agreed to fund the eventual U.S. Supreme Court challenge.
On June 9, 1969, the Supreme Court held that the Ohio law violated Brandenburg’s right to free speech. The court found that the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Statute ignored whether or not the advocacy it criminalized actually led to imminent lawless action. The failure to make this distinction rendered the law overly broad and in violation of the Constitution.” acluohio.org
“Twin Memorials Strange Fruit” Artists Statement
“Twin Memorials Strange Fruit” was inspired by the death of Timothy Thomas on April 7, 2001 at 13th and Republic St. in Cincinnati. I lived one block south of the Cincinnati Police District One precinct office and the memorial to officers who have lost their lives while on active duty since 1846. I visited the Memorial often and remember the Eternal Flame Monument inscription, “It is fitting and proper that we express our gratitude for the dedicated service and courageous deeds of law enforcement officers and for the contributions they have made to the security and well being of all our people.” President John F. Kennedy
When an unarmed young black man, Timothy Thomas lost his life near 13th and Republic St. at the hands of a Cincinnati Police Officer, I thought of the song, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, from a poem by Lewis Allan.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Perhaps a visit to the twin memorials on Ezzard Charles Drive and 13th and Republic St. may help rekindle the words of JFK.
The two buildings at 13th and Republic St. have been demolished and the neighborhood is being gentrified.
I hung the two images in the gallery on Monday February 8th along with several other images from photographers. Only one of the photographers had submitted an artist statement which was often the case. I was not the exception. On Thursday, February 10th a female, black student came to the advising center for her advisement appointment. The first thing she saw was “Strange Fruit” as she entered the center. She was astonished and immediately took a photo of it with her cell phone. She was upset. There was nothing to put the image into perspective. The student worker reported the event to Tracy Stokes, Director for African American Programs & Services.
The Director of Advising and Manager of Internships & Co-Ops in the College of Informatics also sent the following e-mail.
We are excited to see the latest COI Photo exhibit going up! Thank you again for all your ongoing work and commitment to make this happen!
I’m sure you are aware that there is one new photo - in a fairly prominent spot by our front door – with a confederate flag and I have concerns that without an accompanying artist’s statement, the message is unwelcoming. I’d like to talk with you at your earliest convenience about whether there is an artists statement that can go up immediately, or if not, whether this piece can be removed until the artist’s statement is ready.
Let me know your thoughts.
I received a second e-mail.
“I’m copying Kevin on this reply because we did have a student walk into the advising center yesterday, notice it, say that he couldn’t believe that it was in the advising center and snap a picture. I wasn’t here, and I don’t know who the student was, but if I could I would like to reach out to him with your artist’s statement.
Again we appreciate your work,
I received a third e-mail.
I have the name of the student who remarked on the new photo in the COI AC suite earlier in the week. What are your thoughts about reaching out or letting it lie?
The photograph and the accompanying artist statement are now both up. Thank you, Michael, for making that happen so quickly.
I’ve looped Zach in on this email. (Zach, I can fill you in if you do now know what this email is about.
My Department Chair Zach responded to the e-mails:
I think I would let it go. The student will see the artist statement in the future.
The Dean, Kevin responded to the e-mails:
If the student was going to express outrage on social media I suspect we would have heard it by now, so I think we can let it be. And he didn’t register his discomfort with you or an advisor, so it’s not like he “lodged a complaint” that we would need to respond to.
The Director of the Advising Center replied:
“Sounds good. I’ll hang on to the name for now.
I had experienced images from my past that created visceral reactions. I followed the Director’s request. I knew that this may just be the beginning. The opening reception was one week away.
Wednesday February 17th, the day before the opening reception was uneventful so far. I thought possibly that my internal concerns may be based on two other experiences and quite possibly the “Strange Fruit” image and opening reception would go on uneventful.
I was browsing my computer at the University of Kentucky Patterson Office Tower in Lexington on Wednesday afternoon as I awaited my wife, Megan to finish her class. Megan is a full-time graduate student in Creative Writing at UK. I drive her the ninety miles to Lexington when my schedule meshes with hers.
I received the following e-mail from the Communication Department Academic Coordinator:
Just wanted you to know that Maureen marched into the office and proclaimed she is “offended deeply” by the photo of the Confederate flag in the advising center. “Why do we have a photo of the Confederate flag?” I suggested she speak to you about it, since it’s a very good back story about the photo. She left, but she still seemed perturbed.
“Did she march into your office? Did she read the artist statement? Thanks for the heads-up.”
Communication Department Academic Coordinator replied:
No she just stood outside Christa’s office waving her hands for 30 seconds, then left. I don’t believe she read the artist statement. I would have suggested she read it, but didn’t know if it was up.
He also replied:
“I’m thinking your artist statement might need to be crystal clear about why the photo is up. I got a little lost in it, not sure if it’s a for or against the flag. Maureen came in again while I was with Zach and she said she read it but is still offended. She’s going to check on whether the photo display is an art gallery or museum to see if first amendment applies. She rattled off a bunch of NKU names…not sure who the people were. I guess there have been some students who made comments before your artist statement was up. I’m thinking it might need to be tailored to someone who might be offended. Anyway, stop by and talk to Zach tomorrow. He said the Dean was alerted and approved everything. But Maureen doesn’t seem to care.”
“Thanks Randy. I understand your comment on the clarity of the artist statement. My intention is to have the viewers have to critically think about the image and the statement.
See you tomorrow.
See you tomorrow…oh, Maureen’s parting comment about the gallery… ‘This isn’t a place for Mapplethorpe’.”
The ninety-mile drive home from the University of Kentucky was stressful while discussing the e-mail thread with Megan. Megan supported me 100%.
I was exhausted and starving. We had left-over Indian dinner from Monday. I checked my e-mail while dinner was warming up. I received an e-mail from Tracy, the Director, African American Programs and Service, who I had met on one occasion during the Spring 2015 semester. I had exchanged two e-mails with her during the Summer of 2015, about the possibility of doing an exhibition and a symposium at Northern Kentucky University during the Spring Semester 2016 with the theme of the 15th anniversary of Timothy Thomas Death and the subsequent Riots in Cincinnati. She was very interested. She said she was very busy, but that we should talk. I never heard back.
This is the e-mail from her when returning home from Lexington:
“When you have a moment, will you give me a call? 859-___-____? This is my cell phone.
Director, African American Programs and Services
Sent from my iPhone”
I called as soon as we finished our left-over Indian dinner.
She informed me that she had been initially contacted by a Black female student, C concerning the “Confederate Flag” image. She also told me that she had been contacted by the Associate Dean, Maureen and that she had met her at the Advising Center to view the image. She said that before she read the statement that she also was alarmed at the image. But, that when she saw the “Twin Memorials Strange Fruit” image hanging on the wall next to the “Strange Fruit” Confederate Flag on the Barn image that she knew right away it was my work. She then read the statement and felt relief. Maureen, however did not feel relief. The two of them went to the Communication Department Chairperson’s, Zach’s office and had a long conversation before Maureen finally settled down.
She told me that she supported the image and that she felt that it was an excellent opportunity for student interaction. She said she’d tell many students about the opening reception and that they would be there on Thursday.
She also asked if I was willing to meet with the black female student, C and share the artist statement with her. I said, “Absolutely, I look forward to meeting her.”
She then sent an e-mail to the Dean and blind copied me, as I would begin to see additional e-mail threads:
I did indeed come by and look at the photos. I also recommended that the student who came to my office and complained about the photos, speak with Michael to discuss the artist statement (which wasn't in place when she first saw the photo).
My first thought/recommendation was to remove from the lobby, but after processing....speaking to the student again may solve any misunderstanding.
What are your thoughts?
Director, African American Programs and Services
Sent from my iPhone”
E-mail from Dean
“P.S. Tracy just came by and Maureen took her in to view the photo. She also recommends you move it into the back room and consider taking it down altogether. (This is not a statement on the artistic merits of the photo or the intellectual merits of the written statement.) T pointed out that 2 students already complained about it.
Cc’ing Tracy and Kathleen here too just to make sure I’m not misrepresenting.”
E-mail from Dean to the Director of the Advising Center:
“Subject: Michael’s photo
I just now went down and took a look at the photo in the Advising Center— the flag painted on the roof of the barn. I thought Michael’s written statement was solid and made good points about the country’s vexed past and present, and the photo confined a viscerally offensive symbol in a context that makes an historical point. However, I do have two concerns.
- It is a student advising center, not an art gallery. One walks into the latter to be provoked on occasion; one walks into the former to be supported.
- Even if one student has a powerful reaction to the photo, at one extreme or another, and posts it out of context on social media, it will be essentially impossible to restore the context. We do not have “freedom of expression” to fall back on. It is not a classroom, it is not an art gallery, it is an advising center.
Accordingly, at the very least, I’d recommend moving it out of the common student space and putting it in the conference room inside the center. (Other shows have had photos in there before.) Even better, I would suggest Michael perhaps use it to provoke discussion in his Race & Gender classes, but remove it from the exhibition.
Maureen has asked some others (including Kathleen) to take a look too. I’m interested in their opinion.
E-mail to the Director, African American Programs and Service from the Director of the Advising Center
Michael, the artist, is very happy to discuss the image with the student. Would it be appropriate to forward the student’s name to me so that we can connect them? Or how would you recommend we create an opportunity for this conversation?
I really appreciate your thoughts.
E-mail to me from the Director of the Advising Center:
After some thought and discussion, given that the Advising Center is meant to be a welcoming place, the photo of the confederate flag painted on the barn roof is causing discomfort among students, faculty and staff. As an advising center, we are not equipped to help student process the photo while they are waiting for an appointment. We do not want people to look at an image without the benefit of a conversation or help processing their responses. Much as we would hope people would read the artist’s statement, they are not coming to the advising center expecting to be challenged as they would if they were visiting an art gallery.
Kathleen and Dannie stopped by this morning, Michael, and are very interested in using this image and others you may have for an exhibit they are planning. They read your artist’s statement and know your reputation for adeptly facilitating conversations around difficult topics in your classes. Can they reach out to you about collaborating? I have copied them on this email.
At this point, I need you to substitute another photo for this one. I am sorry. You have a created a beautiful provocative image. Unfortunately, we cannot provide the right context to appreciate it here in the COI Advising Center.
I replied to her E-mail:
“I'm coming to take it down now. I'll center up the other image Twin Memorials Strange Fruit on the wall. I don't have another image to place with it at this time.
“Thank you, Michael. Again, I want to reiterate my appreciation and respect for you and your work.
That means much to me.
“Thank you, Michael.
I sent one last e-mail to all who had been involved in the e-mail thread:
“Thanks to all for the artistic and personal support during the last couple of days during the "Ups and downs" of the "Strange Fruit" image in the COI Advising Gallery.
Students from my dual-education EMB-105 Race, Gender and the Mass Media classes who visited from Pendleton County and Boone County High Schools were enthralled with the exhibit and several had picked up on a "Controversy" and asked me to explain. Zach told me Thursday morning that it was OK for me to hang the photo in my office with the artist statement. I walked several students from the advising center to my office and we discussed it. The students always write reaction papers after visits to the gallery each semester. I look forward to their critical thinking papers.
One of the most important things I've learned in my 25 years of photography and exhibitions is that if there is a visceral discussion to an exhibit or an image, then you have something.
I'm excited to the opportunity that Kathleen and Dannie are considering in the future.
I've included a link to a “Blurb” book that I produced this summer of 2015 titled "Strange Fruit". It is a longitudinal exhibition of images I've taken that are part of the concept. You can view the book online. This is not an ad to purchase.
I hope the book may help to understand my reasons for presenting the "Strange Fruit" and "Twin Memorials Strange Fruit" images in the COI Advising Gallery.
I look forward to discussing further any thoughts or concerns.
I then sent an e-mail to the COI Communications and Events Manager since there are two posters that are framed exhibiting the “Strange Fruit” image on them. One is at the entrance to he gallery and the other is a permanent installation in the COI Reading room on the fifth floor.
Is there a decision about the poster? Since they have the "Strange Fruit" image on them and it's not in the exhibit, I can print 2 new posters and reframe them.
Let me know what to do. I'm also working on the Blurb book and will not have the image in the book.
After speaking with MD, we think it would be best to remove the image from the poster. Thank you for your understanding.
Communications and Events Manager
College of Informatics
Northern Kentucky University”
I'll print the 2 new posters substituting my Twin Memorials Strange Fruit image for the Strange Fruit image. I should have them reframed on Tuesday.
I reframed the two posters from the exhibition today substituting “Twin Memorials Strange Fruit” for “Strange Fruit.”
I received an e-mail from a retired Emeritus Professor who exhibited in the gallery with me and six other photographers.
“Responding to censorship?
The more I've thought about (brooded over) the removal of your image from our current photo exhibit, the more disappointed and the more angry I've become about NKU's administration. -- Although you MAY HAVE "made the decision to remove it," it was not a decision that you freely or willingly made. You were pressured (even if some people might argue you were not forced) into it by people with direct and undeniable power over you and your continuance at NKU. -- Their actions violate every reasonable interpretation of academic freedom, artistic freedom and, because the action was initiated by the university which is an agency of state government, your constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Obviously, standing up and trying to fight it or defying the pressure and re-hanging the image would risk serious repercussions, and I am not urging you to do that.
But, if you choose to demonstrate your own anger and dissatisfaction with this censorship, I want you to know that I will stand with you if there is any way my participation could help your cause.
For instance, if you think it would mean anything, I would be happy to immediately pull my images from the show as a demonstration of support and send letters announcing why I was doing it to the dean, the provost, the president, the VP for public relations, and the university's legal counsel. Or, if you think it might have more visual impact, I could remove my images but leave the frames hanging and then post a new artist's statement saying I removed the images for fear that some of the same "sensitive viewers" who were upset by your photo might also consider mine inappropriate and be offended by them.
I haven't talked with any of the other photographers, but I strongly suspect that at least some of them (particularly the tenured ones) might also be willing to join a reasonable show of protest.
Again, I want to emphasize that I am not trying to push you into anything. You are the focal point of the situation, and you are the one who would bear the brunt of any further administrative response. In my eyes, that puts the ball in your court and no one else's. I just want you to know that I'll do my best to back your play if you decide to make one and if you want me to participate.
I replied to Michael’s e-mail.
Thanks so much for your insight into the Advising Gallery "censorship." I truly appreciate every word of your e-mail. I have received much support from many other faculty and staff in COI. It all helps me to feel as if I didn't do anything inappropriate.
I did and do feel powerless for only one reason, i.e. Renewable Lecturer. I am eternally grateful for what gift has been given to me at this point in a career at NKU. After 8 years of adjunct, 6 years as Non-renewable Lecturer and now in my 2nd year as a Renewable Lecturer I am fortunate to thoroughly love what I do. The curating of the Advising Gallery has only enhanced my love of what I do at NKU.
Having said this, I am in a catch 22 for sure. I have fought issues similar to this when I worked at P&G as well as at Colgate-Palmolive. There was no tenure there, just as now for me, but I was younger and had confidence that I would prevail. And I did. The situations were very tense, but the right thing happened and I felt vindicated for following what I felt was the right thing to do.
I feel that this incident is a conundrum. I know how to challenge systems and I sure hear the same from you. Others have shared similar support, although not as specific as you have laid out.
I feel for now that the quiet after the storm may be the best alternative. There is a possibility that my image may be included in an exhibit that is being planned at NKU by the Senior Advisor to the President for Inclusive Excellence and Title IX Coordinator, Kathleen R. I have not specifically heard from her, but I did receive an e-mail saying that she was interested. Time will tell.
Again, thank you for the support and outreach. I'll keep you in the loop should any "breaking" news happen.
I am beginning to receive reaction papers from my students who attended the opening reception. I’m teaching two classes in CMST 101 Public Speaking and one class of CMST 110 Introduction to Communication Studies on campus and two classes of EMB 105 Race, Gender and the Mass Media off campus at Pendleton County and Boone County High Schools in the Dual-Education program.
I had been promoting the opening reception as an extra credit assignment for the students in my five classes. They are required to write a reaction paper from attending the opening reception. It is an opinion paper of the photography, artist statements and the event. After viewing the exhibition without the “Strange Fruit” image in the show, several of my dual-education high school honor students who I had announced that there was a controversy were curious as to what the controversy was. I told them that one of my images had been requested to be removed from the exhibit. I told them that I had permission to hang it in my office with the artist statement. They requested that we go see it. One of the students had been in my Public Speaking class in the Fall Semester 2015 and she read aloud the artist statement as the other students pondered the image.
One of the high school dual-education honor students included the following observation in her reaction paper concerning “Twin Memorials Strange Fruit” and “Strange Fruit images:
“Finally, I got to your piece. Before reading what the artist wrote I hadn’t even put together the fact that I had seen the memorial to Timothy Thomas before. Just never from that angle. It was contrasted by a memorial for service men, which in itself is a contrast. We mourn those who the justice system failed, yet we also mourn for the system itself. It isn’t hard to know which side needs our sympathy, however, it is a quandary on how to fix the problem. After thinking I had figured out the controversy, I was actually taken back and shown the real “problem.” I was greeted by a confederate flag painted along an entire roof. I was shocked to hear that it was not allowed in the show due to a student misconstruing the message intended. When you read the context in which the photo was taken and understand that this is not a promotion of racism it is easier to take a step back and see the weight of the piece. I had heard the song “Strange Fruit” before and I knew the message. It is a powerful song that gives you chills and goose bumps. It truly was the right content to show in addition to the photos themselves. It really was a shame that it couldn’t be displayed in the show, but I am glad it will be shown to the black community on campus on their terms.
For a first show I couldn’t have been happier with the variety that was present. I felt that the urban and rural groups made an extra layer of contrast. I will definitely continue going to shows like these with hopes they are just as in-depth and thought-provoking as my first.”
I can never know racism as a white male. I know bigotry against being white and male, but not institutional racism against being white and male. White privilege precludes this. Many white people deny white privilege. I do not deny white privilege, but I do understand discrimination. Or I thought I did. The “Strange Fruit” image removal from the College of Informatics Advising Gallery has given me a new insight into what discrimination feels like. The feeling of emasculation and loss of power that minorities live daily, I have a heightened understanding of. I have shared my voice with my photography hoping to create dialogue and insight. I feared that it may create polarization and tension. It has accomplished both my hope and fear.
The Constitution of the United States speaks to this.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The American Association of University Professors (aaup) speaks to this as well.
“Protecting Academic Freedom
Protecting academic freedom is the AAUP's core mission. Academic freedom is the indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in institutions of higher education. As the academic community's core policy document states, "institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition" (1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has been endorsed by more than 240 national scholarly and educational associations).” http://www.aaup.org/our-work/protecting-academic-freedom
I am not alone.