Five days before my father died, the Greenwich High School chorus performed at a convention of music educators in Atlantic City. Their repertoire, ranging from Haydn’s Missa Brevis in B flat major to Aaron Copland’s Stomp Your Foot, so impressed a European visitor that he invited the singers to perform in Vienna the following summer.
Two days before my father died, in Santa Monica, California, Rosemary Clooney gave birth to a baby boy.
The day before my father died, two armed convicts named Robert Rivera and Raymond Farra released 19 hostages they had threatened to kill, ending a 25-hour siege at the Tennessee Penitentiary in Nashville.
The night before my father died, a dog fell through the ice on a pond off Stanwich Road. Pamela Shaw, a teenage girl who lived nearby, heard it bark and came running, but the animal, someone’s pet no doubt, slipped under the ice before she could grab it.
In Willimantic, Connecticut, an eight-year-old boy ran into the path of a car and was killed. John Lardner, a 47-year-old newspaper columnist, died of heart failure at his Manhattan home, succumbing to the same ailment that killed his father, Ring, in 1933, at almost the same age.
That night, at the Innis Arden Golf Club, the Old Greenwich Lions gave the Boy Scouts a $1,000 check to spruce up their camp, while the Byram Veterans Association met in their Delavan Avenue clubhouse to plan the group’s annual Spring Dance and Buffet.
The morning my father died, a two-year-old girl named Deborah Albinus was listed in satisfactory condition at Greenwich Hospital. The previous afternoon she suffered a possible skull fracture and facial abrasions when the passenger door of her mother’s car opened suddenly as they approached an intersection and the child fell out.
Newspapers are a roaming consciousness, like a spy satellite circling from hundreds of miles above earth, able to spot a dog slipping under the ice in a back country pond and capture the moment when a convict in a Tennessee prison emerges from hostage negotiations, his arms raised like Jesus on the cross.
I know these things because they were all reported in The Greenwich Time, my hometown newspaper, on Friday, March 25, 1960. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reading this edition, trying to master its contents and structure, hoping, I think, that this exegesis will help me better understand a dimly-remembered day when I was ten years old.
The newspaper, which I retrieved from a roll of microfilm in the Greenwich Library, consists of twenty black-and-white broadsheet pages, of which just seven are devoted to current events on a very slow news day. An index on the front page guides readers through the rest: editorials, amusements, society and television listings, along with three pages of classified advertising, two for sports and a page of comics.
Barely one quarter into the new decade, the newspaper of record in my town displayed few hints of the turbulence ahead. To be sure, there are stories about A-bomb tests, the TV quiz show scandal, unrest in South Africa, and lunch counter sit-ins, yet harbingers of the Swinging Sixties are nowhere to be found—nary a hint of sex or drugs, not even rock and roll. Dwight D. Eisenhower is still President, women are identified by their husbands’ names, and the musical guest on The Ed Sullivan Show that Sunday will be Teresa Brewer, whose big hit—Til I Waltz Again With You—topped the charts in 1953.
But then the news stories interest me far less than the less significant but for me much more revealing items scattered through the paper: police briefs, ads, fillers, school lunch menus, movie personal notices, movie and TV listings, obituaries that trigger a return to a time and place that exists now only in shards of memory.
When this paper appeared I was ten years old, just beginning a new life as a fatherless boy in a town where men came home at night, borne on the 5:36 from Grand Central, weary from the hunt among the pinstriped dragons of the metropolis, their own battle raiment creased and wrinkled, to reclaim their places of honor in country castles. Almost immediately, I became a charity case, dependent on scholarships, paltry Social Security death benefits and the kindness of others, a servant who would, in the years to come, deliver this newspaper, cut lawns in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow-banked sidewalks in winter, bag groceries and shoulder golf bags, quickly absorbing the relationship of fawning courtesy to the size of a gratuity.
I don’t really care that A. P. Mazza, the former Democratic State Central Committeeman, is interested in the post again, but not enough to fight for it. But I am fascinated to learn that March 25 was “Smart Shopper Time” at Partridge & Rockwell, where the values included a Frigidaire Automatic Washer with Special New Automatic Soak Cycle” for $219.95 (“with trade-in”), and I’m captivated by the best deal at Town Hall Radio & TV: an all new Zenith 21-inch black and white swivel console TV with remote Zenith Space Command.
I could care less that, in Washington the day before, government officials declared “No Recession Before ‘61.’ But I find it immensely intriguing that with a gallon of “Dutch Boy” Nalplex Acrylic Latex Wall Paint, McDermott Paint and Wallpaper was giving away free a “Dutch Boy” hand puppet, valued at $1.39!
Elsewhere in the world there was trouble—An earthquake in Switzerland, bomb scares in Baltimore, an actor’s strike in Hollywood—but in Greenwich little upset the bubble of peace and prosperity.
In that verdant place, pock-marked with ponds, streams and lakes, and ringed by marshes and miles of shoreline along Long Island Sound, the replacement of a Mosquito Control worker, for unspecified “unsatisfactory reasons,” was important enough to merit front page play. But I’m more interested in the take home specials at the Dairy Queen in Cos Cob, where my family was living: 40 cents for a pint of ice cream (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry or fresh banana) – four pints for $1.25 – or that the price for six éclairs, 8 Dilly Bars or 11 ice cream sandwiches, was the same: one dollar.
Pricetags abound in the newspaper, providing a bittersweet index of consumer prices ($3.95 for a full course Del Monico Steak Dinner, $1,645 for a new Renault, $14.98 for a woman’s dress made from the latest miracle fabric, Arnel Triacetate). I look at the ads and marvel how cheap things were back then and then I wonder: HHH How broke was my family for them to be out of reach?
Despite the rosy economic forecast that day, the employment picture in Greenwich was bleak and dispiriting as the dishwater skies that shrouded my world (at least the one in my memory) that March Friday. In the Help Wanted – Men section, there were just 14 options available to my father, who had been out of work for months and desperately needed to get his career back on track.
A Mrs. Schenck sought a chauffeur-butler, to “drive an executive between Stamford, Conn. and New York city three days weekly and expertly cook and serve simple daytime lunches in Park Avenue office same day.”
McArdle’s Seed Company wanted a driver (“must know town”); General Factory Help was available at Empire Brushes in Port Chester; Captain Bob Billings was looking for a “Launchman” for a private yacht club.
In the remaining listings, various unidentified employers were seeking a mason (“for outside work”), a night doorman to work the 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift (“must be sober and reliable”), a painter, an experienced routeman and a “shipping and receiving boy (“Will train.”) McArdle’s nursery had another opening, for a young man to do general store work, and a lawn mower shop was looking for a “young mature man, experience preferred.” No salaries were provided, except for the $3-an-hour starting wage for the routeman and $1.50 an hour for the shipping and receiving boy.
With Daddy out of work, the burden of supporting the family had fallen on my mother, and two of my older siblings, Jay and Shelley, who were still in high school. Mom had gotten a job as a subscriptions clerk with Fawcett Publications. The publisher, which started out printing comic books, had created a new medium in 1949 (the year I was born ), paperback originals rather than the reprints that were an extension of the hardcover market. By 1960, the firm occupied a block-long buff-colored four-story building at the bottom of Greenwich Avenue. Shelley, a pretty brunette, worked Saturdays in a podiatrist’s office and Jay, a tall stringbean of a boy, contributed his not-inconsiderable earnings as a golf caddy at the Greenwich Country Club, where his appetite for dawn-to-dusk rounds around the 18-hole course (“loops” in caddy talk), earned him the sobriquet “Mad Looper.” Tuition waivers provided by Monsignor Guerin, our pastor, kept the six of us enrolled at St. Mary’s elementary and high school.
I wonder about these jobs that my father might have considered that day? Who filled them? Did they become opportunities for advancement? Did the employers still exist? On Thanksgiving Day 2001, sitting at home in St. Petersburg, Florida, I called the number that Capt. Bob had provided four decades earlier. A pleasant-voiced young man named Chad answered the phone at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club. McCardle’s Seed Company has morphed in the ensuing years to McCardle’s Florist and Garden Center – “keeping the green in Greenwich since 1910,” its web site proclaims. Unfortunately, in that puny catalog of agate type, there was just one possibility that would have been suitable in his eyes.
“Daddy thought he was white collar,” Jay tells me from his office—in a sweet case of poetic justice, he has capped a 30 year-career in banking, most of it overseas, by taking over as president of Putnam Trust Co., the leading bank in Greenwich.
“SALESMAN,” the headline shouted in the largest, boldest type of the lot. Daddy, nearing 50 after an uncertain living in sales for half that time, might have eagerly circled it, until he read on and realized that the requirements, like those stipulated for the prospective doorman, put him out of reach. To sell business machines in the Stamford area, the firm was looking for someone “Young and aggressive.”
The Greenwich Time published the day my father died is a mosaic of life in a wealthy white suburb at mid-century, one that seems blissfully clueless that the bubble is about to pop.
Only half of the paper’s 20 pages contained news items, feature stories or anything approaching them. The rest is a hodge-podge of wire service fillers, press releases, cartoons, syndicated columns, and anemic pre-People celebrity coverage (Alan Ladd and his wife begging for tax relief, James Garner leaving strike-bound Maverick for other roles) ,and on the front page, the text of a thank you letter from Buckingham Palace to Brownie troop 21 at St. Mary’s. The girls had written to congratulate fellow Brownie Princess Anne on her the birth of her baby brother, Prince Andrew.
The stock market was up, but so was the cost of living. The number of welfare cases was up (comforting somehow, this surprising confirmation we weren’t the only poor folks in town), although the amount of benefits paid had dropped.)
Environmentalism wasn’t yet a priority, unless you count the battle brewing between the town’s nine garden clubs and the company turning the Pickwick Theater into the Picking Bowling Lanes over a “stately elm tree” standing in the way of a new entrance on West Putnam Avenue.
Anticipating, or perhaps influencing, the decline of mass transit, page one carried dueling rate stories: bus fares—up, car insurance—down. African-Americans were Negroes. With the exception of a black man astride a ticking bomb in the editorial page cartoon labeled “Bloody Violence”—skeptical but tragically accurate commentary about the emerging civil rights protests—everyone pictured in the Greenwich Time was white.
The word “hippie,” which had surfaced in the early 50s, was nowhere to be found. But what could you expect when Caldor’s, the discount store, announced a “12-inch Hi-Fi LP Album Riot” that featured $2.29 records from such rebels as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Connie Francis and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Warren Covington? In fact the closest to hip item was the one reporting the test of an Air Force long range air-to-surface missile. (In an adjoining wire service story, an astronomer predicted, correctly, that men would land on the moon within ten years, although his other forecast was off target__ “Within 20 years there may be a civilization there.”) Carried in pairs under a B-52’s wings, each nuclear warhead packed the equivalent of eight billion pounds of TNT, or 320 times the blast effect of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Air Force’s nickname for the weapon paid homage to the 1956 Elvis Presley hit, “Hound Dog.”
Four hundred Greenwich Republicans had launched a house-to-house search for presidential campaign workers in a “Recruit for 60” drive, the only mention I could find of that year’s upcoming contest. Four years earlier, I had gleefully chanted “Whistle while you work, whistle while you work. Eisenhower’s got the power, Stevenson’s a jerk.” But my loyalties changed when John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. In the 1930s, my father and Kennedy had attended a Catholic prep school together.
I don’t know whether my father even knew Kennedy, who was a few years younger and left the school after a bout with appendicitis, never to return. But I have always wondered whether he felt the painful tug of envy at his erstwhile schoolmate’s leap to prominence.
America was grappling with “the Berlin problem,” but the word Vietnam doesn’t appear.
The closest thing to sex was the discreet personals ad for the Greenwich Private Detective Service (“Need Proof?”), a mention of a 1940 campaign against the state law banning the use of contraceptives in the “Greenwich of Yesteryear ” column, and the one-piece bathing suits worn by four Greenwich Academy students spending spring break in Bermuda.
There’s an innocence, or a deliberate blindness, about America, as reflected in the paper that day; big problems, even on the front page, are masked in the bloodless prose of the wire services, a style of reporting that deadens even the most alarming topics, such as atom bomb testing, the police slaughter of unarmed protesters in South Africa, sit-ins in the American south, an earthquake in Switzerland, and more prosaically, divorce notices, marital cataclysms writ small, such as the dissolution of Jean and Barrett Dillow’s 11-year-old marriage. When I compare it to the self-confessional world of today (of which this essay is an example) I’m struck by the things you just didn’t talk about back then or if you did you kept your voice down. My father’s denial about his problems and his family’s fear, inability, unwillingness or perhaps, simply our exhaustion, to do the same kept him from getting the help that might have saved him.
While JFK is a no-show, there are traces amounts of other political dynasties. Prescott Bush, the U.S. Senator from Greenwich, gets credit for a $200,000 grant to spruce up a New Haven hospital. His counterpart from Tennessee, Albert Gore, merits three paragraphs for his blast against a Presidential press secretary for having the temerity to label a Gore statement “a lot of nonsense.” (At the time, Prescott’s son, George Herbert Walker Bush, was busy making millions as a Texas oilman while the families’ next generation of scions—13-year-old George W. Bush and Al Gore, who would turn 12 a few days after we buried my father—were ensconced in prep school.)
We were four years away from the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, the first official recognition that cigarettes were a killer. A wire story on page 3, the only one passing for health news, nourished tobacco industry fictions, the kind that undoubtedly bolstered my father’s resistance to his doctor’s warning to kick two pack-a-day habit. “Smoking may give you a lift,” it began, “by triggering release of a perk-up chemical deep in the brain, a British scientist suggested today.” And just how did Dr. J. H. Burn discover this? “In one experiment, nicotine was injected into a cat’s tail and it made the cat’s hair stand on end.”
The night before my father died, the temperature dropped below freezing, cold enough for ponds to ice over, and while the forecast called for clearing skies, I recall a bitter, gray day, mindful that a pathetic fallacy may be at work.
Wistful signs of spring, just four days old, poked like crocuses through the news columns. Despite “cold blasts of winds,” Joseph Murphy, a bespectacled seven year-old, managed to balance a molecular display of soap bubbles for a Greenwich Time photographer. The fire department was called out to douse two grass fires. Caldor, the discounter, offered several items for shoppers’ garden needs: a five-pound bag of grass seed (“tested Feb. 1960,”) cost 99 cents, as did an 18-inch bamboo rake; 50 bags of limestone went for 47 cents; a wheelbarrow with 3 cubic foot capacity cost only $6.77, almost half the list price. “A few warmer days to dispel snow,” predicted the caption under little Joseph’s close-up, “and the marble shooters will be out.”
In 1991, I was introduced to President George W. Bush. The occasion was the annual White House Correspondents Association banquet in Washington where I was working as a reporter. As a recipient of a journalism award to be distributed at the dinner my wife and I were invited to the VIP reception beforehand.
“Mr. President,” I said as we shook hands, “my mother would want me to tell you that we’re from Greenwich too.”
He smiled, eyebrows arching appreciatively.
“But,” I then blurted, “we were always renters!”
“You didn’t?” my mother gasped when I told her later about the encounter. Class jokes, I reassured her, seemed to go right over the President’s head.
“Oh yes, Mother still lives there,” he had replied, ignoring the second part of my greeting with an avuncular manner that I found irresistible. (In the official White House photo commemorating the occasion, my wife and I stand between the President, wearing what can only be described as shit-eating grins.)
Problem was, it was no joke. During nearly twenty years of marriage, my parents were never able to achieve the American dream of home ownership. When the rent went up, we moved—four times by the time I was seven—hospcotching around Greenwich and its constellation of bedroom communities.
An advertisement for The Clam Box (“New England’s largest restaurant serving Sea Food exclusively. Open every day…the year round”) retrieves the memory of a family tradition. On moving day, our parents would return to our new home with a pyramid of light-blue cardboard boxes, one for each of us, with an individual platter of fish and chips from the Clam Box: a crispy golden batter-fried piece of fish slathered with tartar sauce, and accompanied by French fries and cole slaw. Surrounded by moving boxes and islands of furniture, the treat gave our frequent upheavals, to me at least, an adventurous savor. How my older siblings, who must have understood the circumstances behind our relocations felt about it, I don’t know.
By today’s standards, the housing prices that kept my parents from buying are risible. The dominant offerings were split levels, ranches and Colonials, most priced “in the 30s.” In an entire page of real estate listings, the most expensive property—“In the 70s”—is a five-bedroom house in Riverside with a cherry paneled study, beamed family room, and 1,500 feet of white sandy beach and a dock.
These days, Greenwich real estate agents trumpet the $1 million average house sale on their websites, although one firm consoles the less fortunate that “all the mansion sales don’t mean that the under-$500,000 buyer should skip over Greenwich.” My mother, however, is no longer a renter. In the early 80s, before the market exploded, her six children pooled resources to buy her a one-bedroom condo in a complex close enough to downtown Greenwich that she can walk to daily mass at St. Mary’s.
In March 1960, our family’s black and white television set featured seven channels, all emanating from New York City 30 miles away. My grandfather bought us the television so he could watch the Ed Sullivan Show when he came for Sunday dinner.
On the Friday my father died, television offered 72 different options for entertainment and inspiration. Because it’s an afternoon paper, the listings commence at 5 p.m. but they only last until 11:15 when CBS features a Late Show movie. After that, station logos or electronic blizzards fill the screen.
For a 10-year old boy, the lineup would have disappointed, an unappetizing buffet of adult dramas and variety shows rather than the diet of westerns, sitcoms and cartoons I favored. It was clear where the editors’ preferences lay. They selected three highlights: Robert Ryan and Ann Thomas starring in a 90-minute live adaptation of the 1952 movie, The Snows of Kilamanjaro, itself adapted from Hemingway’s novel published in 1935, TV Guide’s Award Show emceed by Robert Young, Nanette Fabray and Fred MacMurray which promised, in addition to award presentations, to “supply diversion with skits, parody and satire,” and Walter Cronkite’s report on Premier Kruschev’s visit to Paris on Eyewitness to History.
I’m sure we all could have used any diversion available that night, but I can’t imagine anyone turning on the television in the dining room where casseroles, cakes and pies from friends and neighbors blanketed the table, spilling over into the pantry and eventually claiming so much territory we had to rent space in a freezer at the only site open—a pet store where our bounty shared arctic quarters with slabs of dog lovers’ horsemeat rations.
Robert Young was the star of Father Knows Best, one of my favorites; it aired Monday nights. As Jim Anderson, he was everything my father was not: sober, a successful salesman, a steady presence, fully engaged in family life. Like clockwork, he came home every night from work, doffed his coat but kept his tie on, and grappled with the mundane dramas of the modern suburban family.
We were never sure what time Daddy would walk in the door or what state he’d be in when he did. If he was “tight,” my mother’s euphemism, tension permeated the house. It clung to us like my father’s smell on these nights, a terrifying blend of booze, perfume, smoke and sweat that brought the club car, the tavern or the hotel bar trailing him into the house.
I am standing in the attic of our house, a musty space under the eaves, crowded with boxes, broken furniture, castaway clothes. I pick up a book with a black hardcover and read the title, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Thousands of men and Women Recovered From Alcoholism. It’s a snapshot of a moment when I was about 12, devoid of context, a flash of memory triggered by a small boxed item listing a post office box and phone number for AA.
A few years ago, I asked my mother if he’d ever tried to get help. Once, she said.
“Daddy had been very bad and I said, ‘We can’t take this anymore,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I promise,’ and I said, ‘You have to get help,’ and he said, ‘Well you can call AA.’ ”
Mom tells us this on the anniversary, number 37, March 25, 1997. We are gathered around her dining room table, five of the six kids; Shelley, is home in San Francisco. As adults, two of us have wrestled with substance abuse, alcohol in one case, a 15-year pot-smoking habit in mine, and won. Beneficiaries of cultural changes that destigmatized addiction, we responded to family pressure and ultimata similar to the one Mom gave Daddy, by seeking professional help.
Daddy couldn’t do it.
“I remember the guy coming,” Jeff says. He’s 56 now, a stockbroker in Manhattan. “Mom got the guy to come.”
My mother nods. “I called AA and I told them that my husband had said that he was willing. The man came to the house: a young fellow; I’d grown up with him, which was kind of a shock. I called Daddy.”
On the front porch, Mom introduced him to her childhood friend. My father extended his hand. The AA man said, “Well, Jim, I hear we belong to the same club.”
Whatever promises my father had made, now that AA was at the door he was having none of it.
“Daddy looked right at him,” Mom says, “and said, ‘I don’t know what club you belong to, but I don’t belong to the same one.’ “
Jeff never forgot the scene: Daddy turning on his heel and walking inside the house, leaving Mom and an “absolutely humiliated” AA volunteer standing on the porch.
“It was one of the very times,” he says, “I can ever think of Daddy not being nice to another person.”
My father’s horoscope:
“Finish duties early this morning you will have the afternoon and evening for pleasure.”
He’d already suffered three strokes, landmines in his brain that he seemed to shrug off as easily as Doctor Rourke’s orders to stop smoking and drinking and take his medication. Sometime around 10 that Friday morning, while Mom was at work and the six of us kids were at school, the last cerebral explosion hit. He was shaving in the bathroom. In the kitchen my grandmother heard the loud thud that his body made hitting the linoleum floor.
The Greenwich Time is an afternoon paper; the presses don’t start rolling until after lunch, more than enough time for the undertaker (Frank M. Reilly Funeral Residence, 31 Arch St. is represented by a tasteful one-column ad below the death notices) to phone in a sketchy obituary, (although not sufficient, apparently, to correctly spell Sharon’s and Jeff’s names).
“Old newspapers can pull you in deep very quickly,” Nicholson Baker, the novelist and gazettophile, has observed. I have read and re-read the twenty pages of the newspaper published the day my father died. I realize now I’ve been looking for many things there—myself, my family, my hometown, but most of all, my father. I imagine I could keep reading it for ever, the way a Talmudic scholar continues to mine that sacred text for insights.
When page two came into focus on the library microfilm reader, I found my father, in the one place where I didn’t want to see him, sandwiched between two strangers, his life and death summed up in four thin paragraphs.
James W. Scanlan, 44, of 45 Field Rd., Cos Cob, a salesman, died suddenly this morning at his home.
Born in New York City, he was the son of William J. Scanlan and the late Katherine Higgins Scanlan.
Surviving are his wife, Mrs. Alice Ball Scanlan, and six children, James, Jr. Jeffery, Christopher, Peter, Scharon, and Shelley.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
(This essay appeared originally in the Spring 2003 issue of The American Scholar \and was selected as a “Notable Essay of 2004 in Best American Essays edited by Stephen Louis Menand and Robert Atwan. )
Photograph by Amador Loureiro courtesy of unsplash.com