David avoided me from then on. Embarrassed or angry, I didn’t know, but he moved his cot to the other side of the bunk house. The last day at camp, he approached me on the front porch.
“It’s your fault. You did this to me!” he spat.
As I’ve told you, I was never a fighter. Never will be. But before I knew what was happening, the two of us were rolling on the plank floor, each trying to prevent the other from throwing the first punch. After a minute or two, we were both gasping for breath. Out of energy. Thoroughly spent. David started to cry. So I started to cry. We both stood and noticed Joel leaning on the porch railing, arms crossed but face smiling.
“Okay, it’s over,” Joel said. He looked at David expectantly.
“I…I’m sorry…I did it,” David admitted, looking at me.
Now Joel looked at me.
“I accept your apology,” I answered.
“See you next summer?” David asked.
“See you next summer,” I agreed.
And that was how my first overnight camp experience ended.
With a handshake and a smile.
Overnight camp was quickly drawing to a close. You could feel the disappointment in the air. At dinner one evening, my bunk-mate David and I were seated at the table. Nadine, our favorite waitress, was leaning over the table between us to remove a plate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw David lean back and spank her once from behind, then turn away as if nothing had happened. From that moment, everything descended into ultra-slow motion. Nadine straightened up, face beet-red, fighting to control her tears. She looked at me, fuming. She looked at David, who pointed at me.
“He did it!” he accused.
Nadine picked up her tray and stalked off, tears now flowing. A moment later, she walked back to the table, looking resolute. She slapped my face. Hard. I was stunned. David laughed. Nadine turned and walked back to the kitchen. Joel, our counselor, looked at me, wide-eyed, searching for clarity.
“What just happened here?” he asked me.
“He slapped her butt!” David laughed.
Joel looked at me for an explanation. I had none. Joel looked at David, who claimed innocence. I felt the accusing eyes of 500 campers focused on me alone. My own tears began to flow. Joel stood up. He pointed at David.
“You! Come with me…now!”
“I didn’t do anything! He did it! I saw him!” David persisted.
With that, Joel grabbed David by the collar and walked him to the kitchen. I sat there, head in my hands, trying to disappear into myself. A few minutes later, Joel returned to the table. Without David. Then Nadine walked out of the kitchen and sat at our table. Next to me.
“I’m so sorry I slapped you,” she said softly. “I thought…”
“No, no,” I interrupted, “you had every right to do that. I’m just so sorry that you had to endure that embarrassment.”
"And that’s the difference between you and David,” she continued. “I should have known you would never have done what he did. I just hope you can forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. I just hope you’ll still be my friend.”
At that, Nadine stood and kissed my forehead lightly.
“Best friend,” she said, before turning and leaving. Joel smiled at me warmly from across the table.
“You’re a very compassionate young man, Jeff. I’m proud to be your counselor. And your friend,” he said warmly.
My chance to go to overnight camp arrived when the Hebrew School principal notified my parents that my grades had earned me free tuition to attend a ten-week overnight camp in the Pocono Mountains. Ten weeks? I was terrified on one hand, but excited on the other. Terrified, because Camp Ramah required all campers to speak only Hebrew by the end of the summer. I did pretty well reading Hebrew in school. But speaking it as a first language was a bit daunting. Excited, though, because this would be my first experience going to an overnight camp.
I boarded the chartered bus at 6 o’clock in the morning with all the other students for the trip. I had a large duffel bag for my clothes. And my trumpet, only because my Dad told me I might need it. I was the youngest camper on the bus, but the high school girls watched over me like mother hens. That sure wasn’t too much to handle! Late in the day, we arrived at a large, crystal-clear lake in the mountains, surrounded on three sides by a pine-tree forest. The front side had floating docks for canoeing, and roped-off areas for swimming.
Up a steep hillside sat dozens of wooden bunk houses. At the top of the hill was the dining hall, and next to it a large theatre, much like you’d find in any big city. Checking into our bunk houses, we met our counselors. Two sides of cot beds for about 30 campers, and a large communal bathroom with showers at one end. Dinner in the dining hall that first evening was pretty exciting. There must have been 500 campers, seated fifteen-to-a-table. The waitresses, waiters, and dishwashers were senior campers earning a few extra bucks by serving us younger ones.
After dinner, we were welcomed by the camp’s founder and administrator, who explained the history and philosophy of Camp Ramah. Before concluding the festivities, he told us that there would soon be a camp talent show to be held in the theatre, inviting all interested musicians, singers, and dancers to audition for the few cherished parts to be offered campers. The majority of parts were reserved for the college-age counselors. Suddenly, I felt very glad that my father had convinced me to bring my trumpet along.
A week later, I showed up for the audition, trumpet case in tow. Right away, I noticed that all campers waiting to audition were high school juniors and seniors. Undaunted, I sat in the front row of the theatre waiting my turn. From the stage, the director noticed me, but never got around to inviting me up to audition. So I sat. And waited. And sat some more. Two hours later, all the older campers had completed their auditions. The director announced auditions were over. As he turned to leave the stage, one of the house-band musicians objected.
"Wait, we've got one more waiting!” the accordionist insisted.
"Naw, we're full up, no more room!” the director bellowed, shaking his head.
"C'mon, man, this little guy has been sitting here waiting for two hours! The least we can do is let him play something.”
With that, he motioned me up the stairs. As I took my trumpet out of its case, he whispered, "Don't be nervous. Our director can be a real schmuck sometimes.”
"You know Hava Nagila?" the director challenged with a smirk.
I just nodded. The accordionist, drummer and bassist played the introduction. All the while, I focused my eyes on the accordionist for my cue. No sooner did I play the first chorus than the band abruptly stopped playing, looking at me in apparent disbelief with raised eyebrows.
"What's your name?" the accordionist asked.
"How old are you, Jeff?”
“Ten?! So, how long have you been playing the trumpet?”
"I started taking lessons last year," I answered, a little unsure of where this question-and-answer was going. All three band members then gathered around the director, who nodded his head slowly. The accordionist walked over and placed an encouraging hand on my shoulder.
"Jeff...you're gonna be famous someday. I mean it. You're already a gifted trumpet player, and I know we'll all be hearing a lot more from you in the years to come. Rehearsals start tomorrow. You're in the show, kid!”
And that was the moment I first understood that music would become the focus of my life.
Our grandchildren never cease to amaze us.
“Poppa. We’re volunteering next Friday night to provide meals for homeless women. Why don’t you and Nana come, too? She could help in the kitchen. Maybe you could play some music!”
This, coming from our then 13-year-old granddaughter. Her 10-year-old brother, our grandson, would also be helping out.
“Sure. That sounds good! Gimme the details,” I answered.
I emailed the woman at the church that was sponsoring this event. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was an ongoing program to rescue homeless women from the streets, especially at holiday time. And more especially in cold weather. A city-wide network of churches alternated weeks, offering their gymnasiums for sleeping, complete with cot beds and bathrooms. And, their kitchens for cooking the meals that would be served by kids like our grandchildren. This concept blew me away. Wonderful for the women who needed the help. Just as great for young kids learning to help others unselfishly. Not to mention their Moms, who would spend their day gathering the food and cooking the meals. The woman emailed me right back.
“Great idea, Jeff! We’ve never had music before, but I think it would provide a much needed morale boost. Especially at this time of year. Can you start playing at about 7 o’clock? That’s when we’ll be serving dinner. And can you play some Christmas music, too?”
“Absolutely,” I messaged back. “I’ll be there a half-hour early to set up. See you then.”
This would be my first performance for the benefit of homeless people. As I’ve mentioned to you before, a little nervousness always invades a musician’s mind prior to show time. We all have visions of homeless people, especially homeless women. You know. Bag ladies, they’re often called. Mentally ill? Dangerous? The dregs of society? The closer the event, the more I worried. Especially about the youngsters who would be serving the meals. At such a young age, were they ready for what they might face? Were they up to the challenge of treating others as they themselves would want to be treated? After all, isn’t that what they’re taught? At least, in the classroom. But what about in real life?
Cass and the grandkids, together with the other volunteers, spent the day in the church kitchen preparing meals. I had it easy, arriving at 6:30 to set up. There were dining tables and beds for about 75 assembled in the church gymnasium. And, of course, a long buffet table. Loaded, by then, with more food than you can imagine. All cooked, ready to serve. The guests arrived around five minutes before seven, busily unpacking their backpacks and claiming their cots. They were visibly nervous. Not sure what to do next. So, at precisely 7 o’clock, sharp, I started playing. The women took that as their cue to line up at the buffet tables. And as I performed, I looked at them, looking at me. Smiles. Conversation. Easing of tension. And then it hit me, like a ton of bricks. They looked . . . well . . . just like my wife. Or my daughter. No different. All colors. All ages. Some looked older. Some, more tired. Others looked like your favorite high school teacher. You know, the one you can never forget for caring about you?
Midway through the meal, the kids came out from the kitchen to clear the tables. I confess, as I tell you this story right now, I’m wiping a tear or two from my eyes. No fear. No hesitation. They walked right up to each table. Smiled. Engaged the women in conversation. Before I even realized it, the kids were sitting at the table with the ladies. Taking selfies. Holding their hands. Helping them. Being helped by their attention, in return. I have never been so proud of my grandchildren. By 7:30, dinner was done. I thought the ladies would simply get up from their seats and retreat to their cot beds and conversations. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They stayed right where they were. Listening to my music. Laughing at my corny jokes. To the chagrin of my grandchildren. Singing along with the Christmas songs. Yes, there were some tears. For lost families. Lost jobs. Lost opportunities. Lost youth.
I have another confession make, if I may. And I admit this to anyone who asks, “why do you do this?”
“I’m selfish,” I always answer. “I get more pleasure from these performances than my audiences ever could.”
Yes, these are the best audiences any musician could wish for. They listen. They appreciate. They perk up. They smile. And laugh. And cry. And they applaud, too. More often than not, standing as they clap their hands enthusiastically. Unafraid to let you know they appreciate you. At the end of the hour, one homeless woman approached me while I was packing up my gear. She introduced herself. Shook my hand. Stunningly beautiful young African-American woman, no more than 30 years old. She, an aspiring Musician. Talking about her years attending college. Got her degree. Well spoken. Literate. Eager to communicate.
“You know, I’m as surprised by my present circumstance as anyone. I never expected, or wanted to be homeless. But like so many other women here, I faced a hurdle I couldn’t jump over. So, here I am. I know I’ll get over it. I know I’ll return to society, where I belong. But in the meantime, this is an important resting point. A time and place to regain my strength. And my confidence. And your being here, sharing your music, proves to me that there are people who care. I won’t let them down. Or you. I promise.”
I was performing this day in what looked like an old ballroom, complete with hard wood floors. Chairs lining the walls. Wheel chairs, that is. Like always, they had been waiting for me to arrive. Unable to hide the excitement of live entertainment. You know the routine by now. Set up. Corny jokes for those close enough to hear. When ready, begin the show. Talk about who I am. Why I’m here. What I’ll be doing. Introducing them to my 21st Century Orchestra, its teeny, tiny musicians contained within my iPad Mini. Demonstrating the EWI. First, it was a Clarinet. Then, with the push of a button, a Trumpet. A Flute. A Piano. Every possible instrument responding to my touch.
They listened. Intently. They applauded. Often. Enthusiastically. And sat, immobile. Until one brave soul possessed the courage and strength to stand. Shaky. Unsteady. Wheelchair pushed to the side. The Activities Director hurried to her side. Held out her arms in the posture of a dancing partner. The old lady accepted the invitation. Smiled. Laughed. Then took the lead position in this dancing partnership. Cheers and applause filled the room. And the song I was playing?
“Oh, how we danced…”
Several other ladies gathered their strength. Stood. And danced with each other. Wanting, needing to be part of this moment. And I played on. And on. Until everyone was too tired to continue. Except two. The old lady. And the Activities Director. They whirled. They swirled. And they laughed. A smile never left the old lady’s face. She was out of breath. Tired. But she never sat down until I concluded the show. Everyone stood and applauded. Laughed along with the couple still on the dance floor. The old woman finally collapsed into her wheelchair, clearly needing the rest. The Activities Director merely hugged her, long and hard. Not wanting to let go.
After the performance, she approached me, wheeling the old lady over to meet me. The Director spoke first.
“You know, Jeff, Irene, here, had a long career as a Ballroom Dancer. She and her husband actually owned an Arthur Murray dance studio back in the day. But this is the first time she’s been out of that wheelchair in far too long a time.”
“I can’t believe how tired I am,” the woman laughed aloud. “But it felt so good to get up! And dance again! I haven’t had this much fun in years!”
“Well, we’ll have to do it again. Soon,” I joked.
“I can’t wait,” she chuckled. “How about tomorrow?”
The “Gentle Rekindling of Emotions so Long Ago Experienced and so Deeply Enjoyed.”
We’ve all seen him before. In movies, perhaps. Or in our nightmares. On this day, I was performing at a rather large facility, literally on an auditorium stage in front of a few hundred residents. As was customary, they were already seated long before I arrived. Waiting for the promised rare treat of live musical entertainment to begin. When I signaled my readiness, a nurse scurried up to me, asking if one of the residents might be allowed to sit behind me on-stage.
“Sure,” I agreed, looking forward to the company on the lonely platform.
She smiled and retreated behind the curtain to gather the Man on the Ceiling. And I immediately recognized him from our inevitable nightmares about senility. He was old. Very old. Loose strands of white hair hanging from a blistered head. Sucking incessantly on toothless gums. Dressed, so to speak, in a backless gown. No sense of modesty here. Old leather slippers on his feet. Sitting in a wheel chair. Looking up. Staring at the ceiling. Eyes drifting left, then right, then left again. Staring. At the ceiling. The nurse placed his wheel chair behind me, off to the side, near one of the speakers that would deliver the sound of my music.
“Don’t worry, he won’t bother you,” she said. “He’s not only blind, but nearly deaf, too. Maybe parking him here will at least allow him to hear you.”
I looked back at him. Staring at the ceiling. Sucking on his gums. Eyes shifting. Searching. For what, I could only wonder. Following my usual pattern, I began with verbal descriptions of who I was, why I was here, and what I would be performing. The audience was very attentive, as they always are. Once or twice, in between songs as they applauded, I stole a backward glance at the Man on the Ceiling. Still sucking his gums. Looking at the ceiling. Eyes shifting. Searching. Midway through the performance, I announced my next selection.
“And now, with your permission, I’d like to play a song I’m sure you’ll remember well. Tenderly. A lovely melody written so many years ago by that popular Chicago bandleader and pianist, Walter Gross.
Applause. Before a note had even been played. Already remembering a song they knew so well. I closed my eyes, as I so often do, allowing my feelings to flow from my unburdened mind. And as Tenderly continued its journey through time and space, I experienced the deepest sense that something extraordinary was happening, unseen to me. I opened my eyes in mid-song. I focused on the nurse standing in the back of the auditorium. Tears flowing down her cheeks. Fingers steepled to her mouth. Body shaking. Staring at the Man on the Ceiling. Others had noticed, too, now standing to watch, many shaking their heads in disbelief. Following their eyes, I turned to look back at the Man on the Ceiling. Looking up. Eyes shifting. Searching. Lips moving. Startled, I stopped playing. You could have heard a pin drop. Silence. As if a giant vacuum had sucked all sound from the hall. Save the gentle sound of the Man on the Ceiling. Singing. Tenderly. Word for word. Alone in his mind. Unburdened by reality. Reveling in the “Gentle Rekindling of Emotions so Long Ago Experienced and so Deeply Enjoyed.”
At the conclusion of the performance, as all the guests were led back to their rooms, the nurse approached the stage to gather the Man on the Ceiling from his spot behind me.
“In all the years I’ve been here,” she whispered, “he’s never spoken before. Never. This is truly a gift. One that you’ve shared with him. And with us.”
I looked at him. Sitting there. Words now spent. Sucking on his gums. Staring at the ceiling. Eyes shifting. Left. Then right. Then left again. Searching, searching.
After my 20th high school reunion in 1985, I was determined never to attend another one! Yet there was a remarkable allure when another invitation arrived 30 years later. Imagine, 50 years gone by in the blink of an eye. The list of potential attendees was much shorter than it had been thirty years earlier. ‘They’re dropping like flies’ had now become a commonplace phrase, unfortunately. But curiosity got the better of this cat, and I contacted the few people who had been my closest friends. Only one of them expressed any interest in attending. A gala affair was being planned. Would classmates be willing or able to pay the high cost, especially those traveling from afar? Would this reunion be any different than the one 30 years prior? Good news. One of my closest friends would be attending. So, I decided to ‘reach out’ to him, as the saying goes.
“Hey, Barney! I hope you remember me from Monroe High School all those years ago. I don’t plan on attending the 50th Reunion, so I thought I would reminisce about something that popped into my mind when I noticed your name on the reunion list. Tell me if you remember this. I think we were both in 8th grade at Monroe. It was a bitter, snowy day walking home from school. I was lugging an armful of books and my trumpet case, too. As I trudged onward, I noticed that you were walking a couple of blocks ahead of me. By the time I made it to your house, you were already headed to the side door, ignoring my shouts of ‘wait up, Barney!’ But either you didn’t hear me, or had decided to avoid me. Man, was I ticked off! So I made a big, fat snowball, and threw it at you just as you opened the side door to your house. That snowball somehow made its way into the hallway as you walked in, splattering your face with cold, wet snow. I picked up my books and trumpet, feeling vindicated. You turned around in a flash and walked quickly up your sidewalk, a threatening look on your face. Honestly, I thought you were going to punch me in the face! Instead, you ripped all my books from my hands into the snow. Luckily, you didn’t touch my trumpet case! Revenge duly delivered, you spun around and calmly walked back into your house, leaving me to gather my books for the rest of my walk home. Do you remember this, Barney? If so, please allow me to apologize, albeit 57 years late!”
Barney did indeed answer with his own email. “Wow, Jeff. It is so wonderful to hear from you after all these years! I wracked my brain, but I have absolutely no recollection of the incident you described!”
“Good! Maybe now I can finally stop feeling guilty about it!”
Neither Barney nor I attended the reunion. Instead, he drove down to Virginia on his way to visit relatives in North Carolina, spending a couple of days with Cass and me on the way. When Barney arrived, we both stood silently for several moments, staring at each other.
“Fifty-seven years . . . and you still look the same as the last time I saw you!” he said.
We hugged. We smiled. We talked. All afternoon. About our children and grandchildren. Our lives. We enjoyed dinner out that evening, introducing Barney to Richmond neighborhoods. All too soon, it was time for him to continue his journey south. We both wondered about the future. Would we have the chance to meet again? We hugged. Again. And shed a tear together. Best of all, we’ve remained in close contact since then, emailing, face-timing, and visiting in person whenever possible. And that’s when it finally hit me. Our earliest friendships are often the most meaningful ones.
And just like that, my “Big Boy” goes back to
teach school . . . again.
And guess who missed the bus?
Okay, that’s another story!
Ahh, the house all to myself!
Wait! What? Is he crying?
Way back in 1978, I was commissioned by the Rochester
Institute of Technology to compose original music for a film
promoting the five disciplines within RIT’s School for
American Craftsmen: Wood, Metal, Weaving, Glass, and
Clay, plus the four disciplines within the School of Art &
Design: Painting, Printmaking, Foundations, and
You see, I totally surprised music aficionados everywhere by
releasing my original RIT music score in CD format,
satisfying Jazz Fusion fans who favor CDs over Vinyl LPs.
Think about it! The first time ever putting the exact same
LP music on a CD!
The college remained closed for the remainder of the winter semester. When we returned in mid-January, I was notified that I had been named a recipient of the prestigious New York State Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Frank, my departmental chairperson, had nominated me and supported my candidacy. In addition to the honor, I also received a $500 prize. Cass and I decided that we would use that windfall profit to take a much needed and well-deserved summer vacation with the kids in Disney World.
I remember being invited to visit the college president’s office on a Friday morning to receive my award and prize. I also remember attending a second meeting with the president that same afternoon to be told that 20% of the faculty would be terminated due to severe budget cuts brought about by the Ayotollah, not to mention declining revenues, declining enrollment, the gas shortages, the recession, the Blizzard of ’77, and probably even the lunar eclipse! A Proverbial Perfect Storm. Naturally, the teachers who were up for tenure were the first to go. Yep, I was one of ‘em. I questioned the president on the hypocrisy of rewarding me for “excellent teaching” in the morning, and terminating my employment in the afternoon. Is this how you reward excellence?
So, there we were, retrenched, as they called it. Our college president, of course, was suitably entrenched. None of this was very exciting, especially considering the house Cass and I had just bought. But, as I always tell my own kids, “when one door closes, another opens. All you have to do is find it, knock loudly, and walk through.” Looking back, I had an easier time of it than most of the other teachers who had been similarly let go without warning, justification, or compassion. For them, teaching was all they had ever done. For me, my work in the recording studio and in arranging would soon pay big benefits.
What strange times those were!