My Sister, Her Daughter, and the Kindness of Nanci Griffith

In the autumn of 1989 we had tickets to see Nanci Griffith at The Bottom Line in New York City. When the day of the show arrived, my sister Barbara was feeling too poorly to go. She had given birth to her daughter Emily that May, and had been undergoing treatment for cancer since then. So she wrote a letter to Nanci and asked if we would deliver it.

Three of us were going — me, my brother Joe and our friend Bob. (Another friend, John, was supposed to go but had to back out at the last minute. Our sister Cindi was still too young to come along.) We figured one of us had a better chance of delivering the letter than three of us, so the mission fell to me.

I don’t remember who I approached or what I said. All I know is I found myself backstage with Nanci Griffith and her band. She was very sweet and gracious. I remember marveling at how such a big singing voice could come from such a petite woman. I delivered the letter and she autographed an album for me.

As I started to leave, I was introduced to Julie Gold, the composer of “From A Distance,” a song that Nanci had recorded and that would become a huge hit for Bette Mildler a few years later. I told Julie how much I had enjoyed her original demo of the song, which I had heard on Vic Scelsa’s radio program. She then turned and introduced me to Vin Scelsa, and I marveled at how such a sonorous radio voice could come from such a compact man. Someone remarked that things seemed to have come full circle for me at that moment. I laughed in agreement and excused myself to take my seat out front.

Nanci and the band were in fine form that evening. About half way through her set, as she played the intro to the next song, she said, “This song is for Barbara Merklee, her daughter Emily, her brothers Bill and Joe, and their friends Bob and John.” We were floored. With everything else she must have had going on before hitting the stage, Nanci Griffith had actually read my sister’s letter, committed the names to memory, and carried out her request. The song was “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” I was a sobbing mess by the time the song was finished. I become that sobbing mess anytime I hear it now.

Bob and I went back to The Bottom Line the next night to see if we could get Nanci to sign an album for Barbara. After the show we waited near the end of the stage as the rest of the crowd filed out the exits. Clearly exhausted, Nanci came out and signed my sister’s album with this: “Safe passage through the storms.” My sister passed away a few months later.

Yesterday her daughter Emily got married. I wanted her to have something from her mother on her wedding day, so I put together a small gift package. It included a Polaroid of Emily in her mother’s arms when she was just a few days old, a lock of her mother’s hair (taken from a lock my father had clipped when Barbara was six years old), two of her mother’s books (a play by Dylan Thomas and This Is It by Alan Watts), a CD of “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” and a note telling the story of how Nanci Griffith had helped her mother tell us something all those years ago. It’s something I’m sure she would want Emily and James to know as they start their life together: In difficult or uncertain times, there is a light that beckons and never dims.

[2015]

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The Civil War Is Always With Us

At the beginning of Ken Burns’ remarkable Civil War documentary series, author Shelby Foote says, “Any understanding of this nation has to be based — and I mean really based — on an understanding of the Civil War. It defined us as what we are, and it opened us up to what we became, both good and bad. It was the crossroads of our being.”

It should be required viewing in every high school in the nation. How can we hope to address race in this country when so many of us know more about the Kardashians than we do about Frederick Douglass?

The horrific killings in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ensuing disagreements over symbols of the Confederacy are reminders of how the ripples of the Civil War still reach us.

Those who would continue to fly the Confederate battle flag — or some permutation of it — on government property insist the flag is about “heritage, not hate.” Their cries ring hollow. It is, among other things, a heritage of racism and white supremacy. When they argue states’ rights, they mean the right to uphold a racist and white supremacist system. This is explicitly clear in documents and books from all the Confederate states and from the designer of the Confederate flag. Flying that flag on public/government property is a petulant “fuck off” to the side that won that war, especially when you consider the battle flag went up in the early 1960s as a response to desegregation.

Anything good about Southern culture also existed under the stars and stripes. And, as some are quick to point out, so did slavery, and a good many other atrocities that some would leave out of the history books.

True. So why not remove the American flag as well?

Because the American flag also represents our attempts, however imperfect, to confront our wrongs and to rectify them. The same cannot be said of any Confederate flag.

If only we could finally find closure in those attempts.

In ways great and small, the Civil War is always with us.

When my wife and I were considering names for our daughter back in 1996, we didn’t want to name her after someone else in our families. We wanted her to be her own person. We chose Amanda.

The history of that name within the family was unknown to us at the time.

My daughter’s birth rekindled my interest in genealogy. I soon discovered she had two great-great-great grandmothers named Amanda on my side of the family.

Both these women were married to Union veterans of the Civil War. Amanda Worden (who I had only known as Minnie; it’s even the name on her headstone) married Edward Root, who served in the 2nd New York Cavalry. He saw action in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. His handwritten family history became the foundation of my genealogical research. I also have his diary, his medals, and his Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) pin. My brother’s middle name is Edward in his honor.

Amanda Lewis married Edward Tremper, who served in the Union navy, fought in the Battle of Mobile Bay, and was a prisoner of war. He escaped from Libby Prison in Virginia. Ed Tremper died in 1888 when a disgruntled drunk who had been tossed out of a tavern returned and threw a rock at the bartender, hitting Ed instead.

My biggest surprise was learning that my daughter was not the first Amanda Merklee in the family tree.

The first Amanda Merklee was a half-cousin who lived in Philadelphia her entire life, from 1832 to 1919. Her father was a veteran of the War of 1812. She kept journals, which are now held by the Pennsylvania Historical Society. They offer a glimpse into her life and times that I don’t have for the other Amandas.

About half of the pages are taken up with recording the day-to-day events in her life. She and three of her sisters always lived together and never married. They were all deeply religious, and deeply involved with their extended families in Philadelphia and New York.

The remaining pages record news and her thoughts about the War of the Rebellion. Clearly an abolitionist, she writes that slavery has “long been agitating our land” and how the Union is the side of “justice and right.” The passages about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination are very moving, and conclude with this: “A. Lincoln died an honorable death. J. Davis will fill a traitor’s grave.”

Amanda also writes about the volunteer work she and her sisters performed at Philadelphia’s Cherry Street Hospital, where they cared for wounded soldiers, Confederate and Union alike.

The first Amanda Merklee knew her cause was just. It included the end of slavery, the preservation of the Union, and compassion for anyone and everyone who needed her help, regardless of the uniform they wore. I couldn’t ask for a better legacy for my daughter.

Where some find in the Civil War a reason to stay divided, they can also find those “better angels of our nature” that President Lincoln spoke about. It should not take tragedies and government decrees to relegate the Confederate flag to museums and text books. It should finally come down because we finally listen to those angels. The racial wounds of this country, wounds that have been there from its birth, cannot heal otherwise.

Incidentally, the name Amanda means “worthy of being loved.” It would cause an awful lot of confusion, but by that definition, everyone should be named Amanda.

[2015]

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The Ballad of Young Bill Merklee

My paternal grandfather, William Earl Merklee Sr., died six years before I was born. I only “know” him via stories and some recently acquired photographs. I am not named after him. I am named after his son, William Earl Merklee, Jr. My father had his reasons.

William Earl Merklee was born in 1891 in what was then West Englewood, New Jersey. He was the oldest of the six children of William Henry Merklee and the former Susan Hoyt Tremper. His father was a news agent whose family had been in New York City for less than a hundred years, having come over from Germany via Holland. His mother’s family was largely Dutch, and had roots that reached up and down the Hudson valley and back several centuries. Mount Tremper, New York, is named for one of her ancestors.

This is the earliest story I know about my grandfather, an event that I believe colored everything that came after: When he was six years old, he shot and killed his younger brother Harry with a pistol they found while playing in their parents’ bedroom.

A small newspaper article about the incident says more about the sorry state of journalism at the time than is does about what happened. Somehow, the writer was magically present in the bedroom, so he could quote my grandfather as having said, “Harry, I am going to shoot you.” I do know the family moved to Dumont shortly thereafter. In a time before the telephone and the widespread ownership of cars, one could conceivably make a fresh start just moving across the county. I also know my grandfather’s parents eventually divorced. It’s not difficult to imagine the pressures that this kind of tragedy produced, and how ill-equipped they were — by today’s standards — to deal with them.

When my grandfather was about twelve years old, he took a rifle from the house for some shooting practice. This was not unusual; at the turn of the last century, you could hunt rabbits and squirrels in the wilds of Haworth, Harrington Park and Closter. On this day, however, he decided he would try and hit the weather vane atop the steeple of Dumont’s Old North Church. The story goes he hit it on the first shot, sending it spinning wildly, and he soon caught hell from his father, who had become a prominent member of that church as well as a member of the school board.

In the summer of 1969, the Old North Church was having its steeple restored. The weather vane, shaped like a multi-pointed shooting star, was taken down and displayed in the lobby of the bank across the street. My dad took me to see it. One of the star’s lower points was splayed open; my grandfathers’ shot had not been a bull’s eye. Onlookers wondered what had happened, saying it must have been a lightning strike. Dad knew exactly what had happened, but no one seemed particularly interested in the truth.

William Earl Merklee married Adele Fox of Dumont in 1910. They were both nineteen years old. They named their first child, a son, Harry Root Merklee, after the brother William had accidentally killed and after Adele’s maternal grandfather, Edward Root, a veteran of the Civil War with whom she and her mother had been living in a house on Niagara Street since Adele’s father had walked out on them.

Another son, William Earl Merklee, Jr., arrived in 1917. My dad, Norman Harold Merklee, was born on August 19, 1919. His middle name comes from one of his uncles. No one knows where his first name came from. He never liked it. A fourth son, Warren Fox Merklee, was born the next day. It was a surprise to everyone when Adele, who had just given birth to Norman, went into labor again just after midnight. They named this son after the physician in attendance, Dr. Warren, who would later become mayor of Bergenfield. The twins were born in a house on Quackenbush Avenue in Dumont.

It’s not clear when my grandfather’s drinking became a problem. According to my dad, it was a problem for as long as he could remember. The pastor of the Old North Church was apparently criticized by his congregation for socializing and playing checkers with my grandfather. The pastor explained he was simply taking the battle to the devil, when really he just enjoyed my grandfather’s company. I was told he could be quite charming.

That charm enabled him to find work during the Great Depression. He could find work, but he couldn’t hang on to it. His alcoholism would always make him unreliable. And he would squander much of his earnings on drink. In the early 1930s he landed a job as the superintendent of an apartment building in Weehawken. It was an ideal situation: A paid position plus a rent-free apartment for his family. He was also put in charge of collecting the rent from the other tenants. When it was discovered my grandfather was using some of the collected rent money to buy booze, he had to pack up his family and move out in the middle of the night.

It fell to his oldest son, Harry, to provide for the family. Even then, they sometimes could only afford to eat cornflakes three times a day. My grandmother made her boys’ shoes last longer by using the cardboard from the cornflakes boxes to line the worn-through soles. She even turned burlap flour bags into underwear for them. When there was a little extra money, my grandmother would buy supplies to bake extra loaves of bread. She would wrap them in wax paper and then have her sons sell them around the neighborhood. They could occasionally feast on fish, rabbit or squirrel when the boys were able to go hunting or fishing.

When my grandfather was desperate for booze money, he was not above pawning some of Harry’s fishing or hunting gear.

Home life became unbearable for my father. When my grandfather wasn’t out getting bombed, he was home listening to baseball on the radio. The shouting, over-the-top announcers grated on my father’s nerves so much that he completely soured on the sport. (When I was growing up, no one watched or listened to baseball in my house until 1969, when it seemed everybody in the neighborhood was a Mets fan. Everybody except my father.) And when my grandfather wasn’t doing that, he was having dish-throwing brawls with his wife. It’s one of the main reasons my dad joined the Navy in the summer of 1941 — just to get the hell away from it all.

Ten years later, William Earl Merklee Sr. was dead, in a sanitarium in Newark, New Jersey. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn, with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Just Dad and my grandmother attended. Dad told me he was simply providing transportation for his mom and that he never shed a tear.

Only twice did I hear my father speak of his father with anything close to admiration. The first instance was when sixteen-year-old William Earl Merklee Jr. lay dying in a hospital. He was suffering the complications of bronchiectasis, a fatal lung infection in the time just before antibiotics. One of the complications was the swelling of his face from an accumulation of fluid under the skin. My grandfather was at that hospital every day, massaging and pushing fluid out through small incisions to relieve the pressure, and doing whatever else he could to make his son comfortable. My Uncle Billy, my namesake, was laid to rest near his grandmother at the Old South Church in Bergenfield in 1933.

The other instance involved the family dog. My grandfather was sitting on the front porch of his house, letting the dog roam around the yard and the immediate vicinity. It was a common practice; there were no leash laws. The dog wandered across the street to do some of his business in a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor, a strapping Polish fellow, took exception to this and gave the dog a swift kick in the groin. The dog howled and collapsed in agony. My grandfather flew off the porch and laid the guy out with one punch.

***

In the late 1970s I was working as a driver for Betty Lee Pharmacy in Bergenfield. I made a delivery to an elderly gentleman named John Holmes. He was in a wheelchair. While a woman who was also there (she could have been a home health aid or perhaps his daughter) was taking care of the payment, Mr. Holmes starting telling me how he had lived in Bergenfield all his life and once owned a construction company that had built most of the houses in the northwest corner of town. Then he asked me my name.

“Bill Merklee,” I said. His face brightened.

“Young Bill Merklee’s boy?” he said. I immediately knew who he meant.

“I’m his grandson,” I said, and told him how young Bill Merklee had married Adele Fox and had four sons. Mr. Holmes was happy to hear this; Adele was “quite a looker” he said.

“Your grandfather was some ball player,” he said, and he proceeded to tell me all about it, how all the towns had baseball teams and how they traveled by train to play other towns and about the crowds that always turned out to watch. Here I was, listening to a guy who knew nothing of my grandfather’s early tragedy and nothing of what was to come. For him, Bill Merklee was a good-looking kid who could play any position and almost always got a hit. Mr. Holmes couldn’t know he was providing a warm, sepia-toned coda to what was the otherwise sad song of my grandfather’s life. And of course, I got in trouble with the boss for getting back to the store so late.

***

Flash forward to 2014. A kind stranger tracked me down via the Internet and told me he had a photo album that might belong to me. It turned out to be my father’s. I don’t know how this gentleman came across it, but I’m grateful he did.

It’s the photographic companion to all the stories my dad ever told me. Except that they don’t tell the whole story. Nobody was photographing the fights, or sneaking shots of my grandfather passed out drunk, or recording the sadness. Everyone was on their best behavior, usually smiling, and they generally seemed to be enjoying themselves.

There are pictures of my grandfather in his declining years, fishing in Harrington Park and down the shore. Even with everything that had happened, family bonds, however strained, were still there. For all the pain and misery my father talked about, he still kept the pictures.

[2015]

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Dreams So Real

Good night Irene, good night Irene / I’ll see you in my dreams

This has troubled me from time to time: Why haven’t I had any dreams about some of the people closest to me who have died?

Some say the dream state is a way to contact the departed. There are traditions that maintain that the world of our dreams is another aspect of reality, even a separate reality. Others say it’s nothing more than a manifestation of our brains doing filing, sorting, and even problem solving during our physical downtime. I can tell you from experience there really is value in “sleeping on it.”

I’m not going to discuss any of that here. Anyone who has ever awoken in a cold sweat from a heart-pounding nightmare, or awoken laughing (my favorite), or seen a dog whimper and move it’s legs while sleeping — knows that dreams produce real reactions in the waking world. No, my main question was always “Why dream of some people and not others?”

After more than 24 years, I finally dreamt about my late sister Barbara.

I don’t know why this should have taken so long. Only a few days after a friend of mine died from injuries he suffered in a car accident, I dreamt he was in the kitchen of the apartment I was living in at the time. In the dream, I awoke in the late morning to the sound of someone in the kitchen. I got up to see if it was my roommate. To my surprise, it was my deceased friend Rick, leaning back against the stove. I said, “Rick, aren’t you dead?” He just smiled, and I woke up.

Some time later, a co-worker died after a long struggle with cancer. A number of us had donated blood during his treatment. In this dream, I was wearing a business suit. I had fallen asleep on a toilet in an ornate Art Deco public restroom that had marble sinks and counters and small, black and white floor tile. But there were no stalls to speak of, so there I was out in the open, half asleep on the throne with my plants down around my ankles. Other men in business suits came and went without disturbing me. When I fully awoke in the dream I noticed one of the guys standing at a urinal looked like the recently departed co-worker.

“Nick?” I said. He zipped up and turned around. It was him. “I thought you were dead.”

He also just smiled, put his finger to his lips as if to say “Shh,” and slowly nodded his head side to side.

In my dream about Barbara, I found myself in front of the house in Bergenfield where I grew up. It was a mix of the way it looks now (I sometimes drive past it when I go to visit my brother in the next town) and the way it looked then: the pine tree my father planted was still in the front yard, but the fence and hedges that ran between us and the neighbor’s house were gone. I walked into the front yard, and there was Derek, one of the cats we have now. He’s an indoor cat and never even tries to venture outside, so this was unusual. I told him to get in the house (a house he’s never lived in) and held the side door open for him. As I did this, I noticed out the corner of my eye that Ben, a guy I used to work with at the local newspaper, was in the neighbor’s yard measuring a post for a split-rail fence. In the dream, this seemed perfectly normal. He didn’t notice me and I said nothing as I entered the house behind Derek.

The kitchen looked pretty much the same as the last time I saw it, which was 13 years ago as we were clearing out the house to be sold. I also felt like I was 30 again. No one else was in the house. I walked to the back where our childhood bedrooms had been, and there was Barbara, wearing what might have been a hospital gown since it was open enough in the back to see she was thin and frail, like when she was going through chemo. Her hair was up and she was sorting though a bunch of things in the room that she once shared with our sister Cindi, putting things in scrapbooks.

“Hey you,” I said, “What are ya doin’?” In the dream, at least, it seemed perfectly normal to see her — no dramatics or tearful histrionics. I was just happy. She looked at me and smiled. “We’re going to get something to eat,” I continued. “Want to join us?”

“Thank God,” she said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t eat my one meal a day.”

“Oh good,” I said, “cancer humor.” And I hugged her and noticed how short and bony she was. “It’s so good to hug you.”

I awoke gently, not in tears but with a sense of wonder. I immediately started replaying the dream in my head, over and over so I would not forget the details, and then wrote them down. I finally had a dream about her, and I was happy. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

My wife and I sometimes try to interpret the symbolism in our dreams. Of course it’s a completely amateur endeavor. At the very least, we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what real-life experiences probably informed what was happening in dreamland.

In the one about Nick, the ornate restroom was likely based on a similar one I’d used at the New York City archives when I was doing some genealogy research (though it did have privacy stalls). I imagine this became the setting of the dream because it resembled how busy the restroom would get at the newspaper where I worked, after the morning sales meeting as everyone prepared to hit the road.

Rick’s dream was very realistic because it took place in the house I was currently living in, and nothing seemed out of place or unusual except for Rick being in the kitchen.

So I set about identifying the elements of the dream about my sister. The outside of the house was a combination of the way it had been when we lived there and the way it looks today. I can construe that to represent a bridge between past and present. The former coworker measuring fence posts next door makes sense because both my sister and I had worked at the newspaper with him. The cat probably should have been Alex, a gray Abyssinian my late sister had brought home as a kitten only to discover she was allergic to him. She couldn’t bear to send him back, so I adopted him and he became my best friend of 17 years. Derek, one of our current cats, seems to have stood in for Alex. Derek is diabetic, and I give him an insulin shot twice a day. So that may be some allusion to having helped care for my sister when she was ill. The inside of the house appeared largely as I had left it the last time I was there. And Barbara looked only a little healthier than the last time I saw her alive, so there was a sense of picking up where we had left off. I’m not surprised that the hug felt very real; I have many tactile memories of hugging my sister.

But what triggered this dream after all this time? I believe it was a “Throwback Thursday” photo posted by a friend on Facebook. She is a survivor of ovarian cancer, and she posted a TBT photo of herself from when she was undergoing treatment. I’m so certain this photo was the catalyst for my dream that I thanked her for posting it and told her what had happened to me.

There are many interpretations of what dreams may or may not be. I’m always happy to discuss all the possibilities, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I got to hold my sister again, and I am so grateful.

[2015]

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God is a Loaded Term

I’m a regular reader of CNN’s Belief Blog. More often than not, the blog’s contributors have refreshing takes on the role of faith in American life. They also don’t shy away from addressing the subject from the point of view of non-theists. (CNN in general has become a magnet for theist/atheist arguments; they seem to crop up in the comments section of many of their articles, even when the article isn’t about religion.)

This past week, the blog highlighted the response to an iReport by Deborah Mitchell, a Texas mother of two teenagers. (iReports are stories sent to CNN’s website by users — an exercise in citizen journalism). Mitchell’s report has garnered the second highest number of page views of any iReport, and the most comments of any submission.

The title? “Why I Raise My Children Without God.”

Predictably, there was considerable backlash in the comments section. Some tried to have the report flagged as inappropriate in an effort to have it removed. But many others — including more Bible-belt moms hiding in the atheist/agnostic closet — applauded her bravery. Yes, bravery — because non-believers may well be the most hated minority in the country.

I have quite a bit of sympathy for freethinkers (the term I use for atheists, agnostics and all manner of religious skeptics). This was the road I took to Zen Buddhism. It was Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian that helped me shake off the last vestiges of my Catholic guilt. Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll are two of my heroes, freethinkers unjustly ignored by American history. I am truly saddened that Christopher Hitchens is no longer among the living.

Like Deborah Mitchell, my wife and I also decided not to raise our children with organized religion, and to be free and open with them concerning questions about God and spirituality.

When our daughter was born, we did not have her baptized. Much to my relief, this did not cause any problems with the more devoutly religious among our friends and family (perhaps one of the perks of living in New Jersey). In fact, my wife’s grandfather, who had been an officer in the Knights of Columbus, never once questioned us about it, never tried to sway us, and never changed the way he treated us. I found this so incredibly decent that I decided we could meet him half way. We had our daughter baptized when she was eighteen months old (which I know pleased my mother-in-law as well as her father) and also our son shortly after he was born. But that was the extent of our involvement with any formal church.

As our children grew, questions about religion would come up. I would always try to answer them by starting with “In the Christian tradition” or “In the Jewish tradition.” When they would ask what religion we were, I would tell them we were all baptized Roman Catholics but we don’t go to church, and that I was now a Buddhist. I told them they could claim to be either. As near as I can tell, they usually told their friends they didn’t have a religion. And again, this doesn’t seem to have caused any problems.

Questions about God were trickier, because “God” is such a loaded term. When I was younger, my stock response to the question “Do you believe in God?” was “Define your terms.” Of course it was always God as they imagined him in the Bible. I say imagined because I’ve found that a good many people who profess to believe in the God of the Bible have actually read very little of the book. And then my answer is “no.” I’ve felt for a long time that whatever God may be, he or she is in desperate need of better PR.

I have told our children what others believe God to be while admitting that I just don’t know (and that no one else does, either). I’ve always found agnosticism to be the only intellectually honest position, since theism and atheism both seem to require a degree of certainty that I feel is unwarranted.

My children are acquainted with the basics of the Tao and of Buddha-nature. This is how I’ve approached the idea of God, and this seems to make sense to them. One day I’ll also tell them about Emerson’s Over-soul. I know our children don’t believe in a God that sits in judgement up in the sky, dishing out rewards and punishments. They understand that doing good, that acting from a kind heart, doesn’t require these.

I’ve also tried to teach them to appreciate the value others find in religion, and the difference between private faith and religion-based social policy. There is a time and a place for understanding personal needs of the spirit, and a time and place to defend freedom of the mind and heart.

I really do miss Hitchens.

[2013]

A Lifetime in Bergenfield Belies Author’s Version

I JUST FINISHED reading “Teenage Wasteland,” a recently published book that attempts to examine the circumstances behind teen suicides like the ones in Bergenfield in 1987.

While the author, Donna Gaines, made some valid points concerning alienated youth and the skewed priorities of American culture, I disagreed with her less-than-flattering portrayal of Bergenfield, particularly the high school.

The author is a sociologist. I am not. She spent a month in Bergenfield researching a book. I have spent my life here.

As a student, I did not fit into any of the author’s pigeonholes of high school society. I was not a “burnout,” nor was I scholarship or honor society material. I was just an average student who graduated in the middle of his class.

The two copies of “Teenage Wasteland” at the Bergenfield Public Library seem to be on perpetual reserve. If you want to get in line, you can read the author’s version of Bergenfield High School.

This is my version.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that the noblest of all professions are nursing and teaching. Sad to say, many of us only come to realize this under unfortunate, and sometimes tragic, circumstances.

In the days following the Bergenfield fire that killed William McClain’s family this past spring, I witnessed the struggle of Bergenfield High’s students and faculty to cope with the loss of 16-year-old Bill McClain, a struggle compounded by the tragic death of another 16-year-old student less than a month before, Nakia Wright.

The day before the fire, Bergenfield’s renowned marching band had participated in New York’s welcome-home parade for the Persian Gulf troops. Billy played the French horn in the band. My sister, a senior, was in the color guard.

Sixteen years ago, I played trombone in the band.

So in covering the aftermath of the fire for a local weekly newspaper, I found myself conversing with teachers I had known when I was in school. What came through in these conversations was the love these teachers have for their students. A recurring theme in the conversations was family.

On the day of the fire, several Bergenfield alumni, people who had never met Billy McClain, came to the school to offer assistance, much in the same way relatives gather after the death of a family member.

I spent a good part of thai evening talking on the phone with Gloria Pennell. She is married to Kent Pennell, the marching band’s director. She, too, had been in the Bergenfield High School marching band. She now spends a great deal of her time with the band, particularly the color guard.

Gloria Pennell and I reflected on our experiences, which we had taken for granted as students, and how people tend to take what she says about teachers’ sacrifices with a grain of salt because her husband is a teacher.

She spoke about the commitment of the faculty, about the countless extra hours spent by the art department to put on shows; by the athletic department during summer, weeknight, and weekend training; by the music department in extra rehearsals; by the clubs and organizations during their after-school activities; and by the teachers who make the effort for no reason other than they want to do it.

The Pennells consider the band their adopted children. The Saturday before the fire, they had attended the local Eagle Scout presentation, where Billy McClain was recognized for his achievements.

The Pennells have no children of their own, and, like many young couples, are sometimes questioned about it by well-meaning friends and relatives.

Gloria Pennell said that on such occasions, she just smiles and thinks to herself, “You couldn’t buy what we have.”

Claire Quirke, a senior in the band, agreed about the relationship.

“She is band mother,” Claire said. “And we are her children. All 90 of us.”

Frank Levy, the high school’s music director, had known Billy McClain for eight years. He concurred:

“I know these kids from Grade 4 on. Maybe we’re not all father and child, but at least we’re cousins.”

He said the support the faculty had given the students was reciprocal; he had found comfort in being able to talk about his feelings with his students.

Two days after the fire, the high school had its senior awards night. Principal Ross Medlar believed that it was important to resume a normal routine. Each department, as well as civic organizations, presented awards and scholarships to seniors. The auditorium stage was filled with teachers sweating beneath the klieg lights. I recognized every one of them.

An almost reverent lull fell over the audience as the math department teachers came to the podium. Billy McClain had been a math prodigy. Joyce DeSantis, the head of the department, announced the establishment of a scholarship in Billy’s name. The auditorium erupted with sustained, resounding applause.

Some time later, choir director Michael Benard presented a vocal music award to a student he affectionately referred to as “his son.” Faculty and students alike roared with knowing, appreciative laughter. Such are the relationships at Bergenfield High School.
I thought about the things these teachers had given me, lessons that were not in the texts, lessons that did not come out of their plan books but from their example.

I had learned tolerance. I had learned the value of an individual’s contribution to a group effort. I had learned commitment. I had learned compassion.

It was easy to take those things for granted as a student. It is also very easy to take them for granted as a voting member of the community.

I grew up with one of the so-called “burnouts” mentioned in “Teenage Wasteland.” To this day, I do not fully understand the reasons for his death in 1986, or for the suicides of the four teenagers in that Foster Village garage nine months later.

What I do understand is that children are a community’s greatest treasure.

And teachers are the children’s treasure.

[1991]

Originally published in the August 19, 1991 edition of The Record.