Category Archives: KING LOW HEYWOOD SCHOOL STORIES

KING LOW HEYWOOD SCHOOL STAMFORD CONNECTICUT. TRUE STORIES OF THE PAST

Our Kind Of Traitor – movie review

Our Kind Of Traitor is a mediocre adaptation of a wonderful John LeCarre novel. It is about a high ranking Vory (Russian mob) member who has decided to reveal the details of how illegal money is being laundered through London banks. He is willing to risk his life to bring this crucial information to the authorities.

Ewin McGregor & Naomie Harris

Ewin McGregor & Naomie Harris

Ewin McGregor and Naomie Harris are a married British couple (Perry & Gail) who are  on holiday. They are befriended by the Russian mobster Dima (played by Stellan Skarsgard) and his large family. He comes to trust them and asks Perry to tell MI6 in London about his offer to exchange information in return for asylum  for his whole family.

Damian Lewis and Stellan Skarsgard in Our Kind of Triator

Damian Lewis and Stellan Skarsgard in Our Kind of Traitor

Perry and Gail are just ordinary people, but they realize that the lives of the entire family are at risk, so they agree to help.

Damian Lewis

Damian Lewis

Damian Lewis is the Mi6 agent Hector, who sets up an off the books plan for the family to get to London.

Our Kind Of Traitor has lots of good points and action scenes, but it just does not hold up to the book.  The issue is that it has been “dumbed  down” too much for the movie audience. Much of the complexity of the characters has been left out.

Alicia von Rittberg ( far right) as Natasha in Our Kind of Traitor

Alicia von Rittberg ( far right) as Natasha in Our Kind of Traitor

The biggest disappointment in Our Kind Of Traitor is the way the movie failed to properly use the talents if Alicia von Rittberg in her role as Natasha. In the book,  Natasha is a major character with a complex and moving subplot of her own. She and Gail become close friends and she tells Gail the secrets she dare not mention to her own parents.  That’s why we were looking forward so much to seeing  Alicia von Rittberg playing this role.

Alicia von Rittberg

Alicia von Rittberg

However, in the movie version, Alicia von Rittberg’s Natasha hardly has any lines at all, and no meaningful interaction with Gail.  When Natasha does finally reveal one secret the audience does not care, since we don’t know anything else about her as a character. It is disappointing that the director chose to just leave out a major part of the book, when Alicia von Rittberg was the perfect actress to play Natasha as John Le Carre had intended.

The talents of the great actor Damian Lewis were also not used to their full capacity. He was much better in the American T.V. show Homeland, in which we were never sure if he was a hero or a villein.  In the movie Our Kind of Traitor, the director chose to have him play the classic action hero we have seen in countless other films.

Despite being a British film Our Kind Of Traitor chose to insert a “Hollywood ending”  that was not in John Le Carre’s novel. Lovers of John Le Carre’s novels know that he always has the lines between good and evil, right and wrong to be very blurry.  Not a single John LeCarre novel was ever meant to have a Hollywood Ending.

 

 

Remembering Doctor Jean Farrell

My aunt, Doctor Jean Farrell of Stamford Connecticut died on July 3, 1984. She was a well known Pediatrician at Stamford Hospital. Those of you who were her patients will now have children (perhaps even grandchildren) of your own and realize how important a good pediatrician is in your life.

Doctor Jean Farrell, 1947 Vassar College 1952 Georgetown Medical School

Doctor Jean Farrell,  Vassar College
1952 Georgetown Medical School

Jean was a big woman. She was big physically. She had a loud booming voice and a hearty laugh. If you were her friend she would do anything for you, and if you were her enemy, then God help you because nothing else would be able to.

Jean Farrell was also a a pioneering woman for her time. She went to Georgetown Medical School at a time when female doctors were still very unusual. She became a Board Certified Pediatrician and spearheaded  many new techniques that saved children’s lives.

She was only 56 when she died and since she was unmarried my father (Dr. John Farrell)  and I had to review the death certificate. If you have never seen a death certificate they are very cold and terse documents to sum up a person’s life.  I still remember the wording. It read:

“Occupation – Doctor, Unmarried, No Children”

It struck me how wrong that document was. Jean Farrell had hundreds of children. All of her patients were her children. If any of you read this, I would like you to know that despite her rough exterior Doctor Jean Farrell cared for each of you very much and as individuals. She knew all your names. You were her life.

When Jean died there were many large floral bouquets, but one tribute stood out from the rest. It was from a friend of Jean’s named Iris, who like, Jean was a devout Catholic.  There was a simple cut glass vase with a single red rose in it. (Jean’s hobby outside of work was growing roses.) Beside the rose was a card with the handwritten note:

“Until we meet again”

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is a hilarious spoof of the horror movie genre. It takes every horror movie cliche imaginable and turns them around to comic effect.

Alan Tudyk as "Tucker", and Tyler Labine as "Dale"

Alan Tudyk as “Tucker”, and Tyler Labine as “Dale”

Tucker and Dale are two nice  working-class guys who have saved their money to buy an old cabin in the woods and fix it up as a vacation home. They bring with them all the equipment you would need to clear the brush around the cabin – chain saws, machetes and a wood chipper.

At the same time Tucker and Dale are working on their dream home, a group of college students is camping in the woods nearby. The college kids become convinced that Tucker and Dale are psycho killers ready to chop them up.

Katrina Bowden as "Allison"

Katrina Bowden as “Allison”

Tucker and Dale end up up saving one of the college kids, (Allison) from drowning.  They bring her back to the cabin to recover. While there, Allison and Dale get to know each other and become friends.

Jesss Moss is perfect as the Preppie psyco "Chad"

Jesss Moss is perfect as the Preppie psyco “Chad”

However, just when you think there might be a happy resolution, the movie shifts into high gear and goes into full fledged violent, gory horror movie mode.

Chad, the leader of the college kids, convinces the others that Allison has been captured by Tucker and Dale, and that the only way to save Allison is to kill Tucker and Dale. In a reverse of the normal horror movie, the hillbillies are the ones being attacked by the college kids.

The more you love horror films the more you will love Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It uses to comic effect all the things that drive viewers crazy about horror movies. Cell phones don’t work. People never call the police. Everyone continually makes stupid decisions.

Be warned, however, that this is a very bloody movie. It has every bit as much gore as “real” horror films. In fact, it goes “over the top” on the gore as just one more way to make fun of other movies.

The acting is fantastic. The beautiful Kartina Bowden is great as Allison, who, (without success)  tries to be  the the voice of reason in this crazy world. Alan Tudyk is perfect as Tucker, a shy gentle man who the college kids think is a killer. Tyler Labine is Dale, who just wants a nice vacation home. Jessie Moss is “Chad”, the sneering arrogant preppie who holds a dark secret within.

 

My Evening with Frank Gifford

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Frank Gifford. Most people knew him as a sportscaster on Monday Night Football. An older generation remembers him a fantastic player with the New York Giants.  However, I will always remember him as a great after dinner speaker.

When I met him, Frank Gifford was in transition between being a professional athlete and becoming a T.V. star. He was one of many ex-athletes who were competing for a very small number of openings on T.V. or in the movies. Some guys could make  the transition.  Most did not.

Frank 3

Frank was taking whatever gigs he could get so as to get used to speaking to the public. When I saw him he was the after-dinner speaker at King School’s annual father-son dinner. The dinner was held at a restaurant called the Halfway  House which is on the Stamford-Greenwich border. This was so long ago that the term “halfway house” was not yet associated with ex-cons and drug addict rehabilitation. (The restaurant is still there, but now calls itself Twin Faces).

Frank Gifford could have just showed up after dinner, given his speech and left. But that was not his style. He arrived early, had drinks with the fathers and told funny stories to the boys. At dinner he sat at the front table with the headmaster Mr. Jackson and made everyone around him feel comfortable.

During dessert it was time for Frank Gifford’s speech. All these years later I can still remember it. He spoke of his days as a professional football player and the funny things that happened on the field and in the locker room. The man was a natural story teller, and the audience loved him.

The funniest parts of his speech were when he spoke about his days after football and his attempt to be an actor. With his good looks and athletic build, Hollywood tried putting him in the movies. For some reason they kept trying to put him in Westerns as a cowboy, even though he knew nothing whatsoever about horses

He told a story about one scene where he was supposed to pick up a saddle from a fence and “saddle up” a horse. No one had told him the saddle was strapped to the fence and you had to unbuckle it first. Frank went over to the saddle, grabbed it with one hand and heaved. This resulted in Frank falling flat on his back and ruining the scene. After that, directors had no interest in trying to make Frank Gifford into John Wayne.

After the speech, Frank stayed for the rest of the evening and everyone got a chance to spend a lot of time with him. Even then, we all realized that there was something special about Frank Gifford. He had a natural charm that came from the fact that he could genuinely connect with people. We knew that his career after football was going to be a success.

Frank 1

It was only a few years after that when Monday Night Football started and Frank Gifford became a household name. I am glad he was such a success.

Goodbye Frank. Thanks for the stories.

 

King School Class of 1971

It seems impossibly long ago. In fact,  44 years ago. Rapidly closing in on a half a century. Yet somehow I remember everything from King School in Stamford Connecticut much more clearly than many events that have taken place since. The events of those years make a lasting impression on a person.

In fact,  I have written a number of stories on  this very blog about my time at King. If you click on the links below you can read some of them.

  • The Last Connecticut Gentleman is about  the real Merritt K. Sawyer. At school he was a feared tyrant. But I knew him out of school in quite a different context. (By the way, as our English teacher, Mr. Sawyer would have hated that I began the prior sentence with the word “but.”).
  • Running For Cake is the story of our wresting coach Aaron Hess (Woody) and his quest to turn us into Spartans.
  • Guns In The Attic is the story of one of my fellow classmates and the strange and wonderful air force in his attic.
  • Mr. Yang and the Electrical Banana is about our math teacher Jackson Yang and his struggle to make sense out of the incomprehensible lyrics of Donovan Leitch.

Of course, there are many other people and events that come to mind whenever I think about King. There was our Senior English teacher Mr. John Savin Hoffecker, whose love for teaching  was so great that  he gave up a successful law career in the South to teach English in Connecticut.  Savin felt that no class was complete unless he had told us a story about his days in the Old South. I don’t remember many of the books we read in that class, but I do  remember every one of his stories.

There was Malcolm Wilmott who taught Earth Science and who had been a race car driver  in England before becoming a teacher. He was always frustrated with being the person assigned to ferry students around in the school’s underpowered Volkswagen bus.

A number of people from King have written comments to this blog about  the King School stories, and I would love to hear from more. I was looking at the King website on line today and saw that it has changed tremendously, yet somehow remained the same.  It is now co-ed and combined with Low Heywood Thomas.  Some of the physical attributes of the place have changed, but the sheer youthful exuberance of the students remains the same.

When I graduated from King I was happy to leave. It was time to move on and find new adventures. Frankly, having gone there since sixth grade I was tired of the place. But now, when I look through the old yearbook I remember it for what a unique experience it really was.

In the movie Radio Days Woody Allen spoke about how he can still remember the old-time radio voices, but as he get older each year they seem to get a little fainter. I find just the opposite. As I get older, my memories of King seem to get stronger.

Now that I am as old as the most senior teachers were, I can somehow look back at the school with a different perspective and see it in its entirety.

 

 

 

Mr. Yang and the Electrical Banana

It’s funny how an old song can transport you back through decades as effectively as any Time Machine. Yesterday I was cruising down the highway when Mellow Yellow by Donovan Leitch came on blasting through my car radio. Suddenly I was back at King School in Stamford Connecticut in Mr. Yang’s Algebra class.

Mr. Yang was a teacher we all thought was hilarious. He had moved from Taiwan to the U.S. and still had a very thick Chinese accent. He told us he had served in the United States Army which was  something none of us believed for a second. For one thing, he was only about 5 feet tall. He was also thin as a rail. The boys would laugh openly when Mr. Yang told us of  his “adventures” in Army life.

Looking back on it, I realize that Mr. Yang was actually a great teacher. He made the dreaded Algebra class fun. He didn’t care what was making the kids laugh. What he liked was that they were associating coming to math class with having fun.   You see,  once he had gotten the kid’s attention with stories and jokes he started teaching them Algebra.

Mr. Yang loved his new country of America.  He desperately wanted to be a “cool guy” so he listened to all the same radio stations as  the kids did and tired to learn all the songs and their meanings.  Having a mathematical mind, he just naturally assumed that each song must have a meaning.

Unfortunately the songwriter that Mr. Yang liked the most was Donovan Leitch. Now Donovan’s songs are great and are wonderful to listen to, but do the words really make any sense? All I know is that Mellow Yellow came out in 1966, and I still have no idea what it’s about.

One day Mr. Yang came to class very excited. He had heard Mellow Yellow for the first time on his way into school and it drove him crazy that he could not understand its meaning.

Couch and Bananna 006

“What does Electrical Banana mean boys? What’s it mean?” Mr. Yang kept asking us.

Of course  we had no idea either, except that as kids we were sure that the phrase “Electrical Banana” must have some sort of sexual connotation. We all thought it was hilarious that the naive Mr. Yang was too innocent to get the sexual reference.

Mr. Yang  next tried to decipher Season of the Witch with no more success than he had with Mellow Yellow.  Finally he  moved on to trying to figure out the calculation of the correct Star Dates in Star Trek. Somehow, while all this was going on, all us kids learned Algebra without actually realizing we were doing so.

There are several Epilogue notes to the story, which happened long after I graduated from King. The first is that Mr. Yang went back to school himself and earned a PhD in mathematics. The second is that when I got older I looked up some records, and found out that Mr. Yang actually was in the United States Army. Apparently the Army wants small guys with great technical and math skills just as much as it wants big strong guys.

Finally, decades later,  Jeff Donaugh,  one of the guys from our class actually ended up meeting Donovan Leitch in a coffee house in London. He found Donovan very approachable and finally Jeff had the nerve to ask him what Mellow Yellow was about.

Donovan looked him directly in the eye and said, “It’s all there in the song man. All you have to do is listen.”

I just know that somewhere in America Doctor Yang is still trying to figure it out.

 

 

Running for Cake

Our high school wrestling coach was Mr. Hess. He had been a star athlete  at Princeton in both wrestling and track. He was very discouraged that we were all not more like him and he wanted to whip us into perfect shape. Mr. Hess was also the history teacher and his favorite topic was ancient Sparta.  He wanted us to be just like the Spartans.

He was always devising bizarre training techniques for us. Like the day he decided to improve our reflexes by splitting the team into two groups and having us play Dodge-Ball. The only problem was that Mr. Hess could not find the keys to the locker where they kept the soft bouncy-balls. So instead he handed out a bunch of basketballs for us to use.

Being high-school kids, we of course aimed the basketballs for each other’s heads and genitals. You could only protect one part at a time, so we all got hit in the head a lot. I still remember what it feels like to have multiple basketballs smashing into your head repeatedly. Just like ancient Sparta. Mr. Hess thought it was such a success that he had us play “Spartan Dodge-Ball” 3 items a week.

Then Mr. Hess decided the problem was not with our reflexes but with our stamina.  He decided  that what we really needed was to run. Not just a little warm-up run before practice, but a really long run for an hour or more.

The only problem is that the wrestling season takes place in the middle of the winter and the school had no indoor track.  Mr. Hess had also not told any of us about this ahead of time so we had not brought any warm running  outfits to wear.  After all. wrestling is an indoor sport.

So Mr. Hess gave us all thin grey sweatsuits and sent us outside to run in the middle of one of the coldest winters Connecticut had seen in 50 years.

It turned out that Mr. Hess had an ulterior motive. He was way behind on his teaching responsibilities.  He had piles of essays and tests he needed to read and grade. While we were running in the cold he was going  to stay inside and catch up on his work. So he sent us outdoors and set up his papers to grade.

The rest of the team just ran around the parking lot of the school, shivering and wondering how long before they could go back inside.  But I had a plan. I took off and ran off the school grounds and down the street.

About a mile from the school was the home of my friend John Hoffecker, and that’s where I ran to. It turned out that not only was John home, but that his mother had just finished baking a chocolate cake.

John and I ate delicious warm cake and watched T.V. I ended up staying a lot longer than I had planned. When I looked at the clock I realized that I had been at his house for over an hour and a half.

In a panic, I ran back to the school, dreading what would be in store for me when I met up with Coach Hess. When I got the parking lot none of the team was there.

I ran into the gym and there was the whole team doing push ups and looking  miserable. It turns out that they had only stayed outside for a few minutes before they got too cold and headed back inside. Mr. Hess was furious with them. The team had ruined his plans to catch up on his work, so the was punishing them by making them do push-ups until their arms ached.

Then he turned to me. I awaited whatever evil punishment he was going to give me for cheating on the run.  Instead his face broke into a wide smile. “There’s my little Spartan!” he said. Then he addressed the rest of the team. “Farrell has been outside running for almost two hours and you wimps couldn’t even take it for 15 minutes.”

I felt badly for the rest of the team, but I never told anyone I had really been eating chocolate cake the whole time.  It wasn’t that I was afraid of the team’s reaction. I just didn’t want to ruin the pleasure Mr. Hess had gotten. He actually thought that he had turned me into a Spartan.

Some of the parents eventually complained about Mr. Hess and he was forced to change his training methods.  The administration gave him a manual and told him he had to use normal  training methods like other coaches used. It was probably better  for us, but somehow it just was not as much fun. Knowing that our coach was a little insane and might suddenly do anything at all was the best part of being on the wrestling team.

I thought about this story because the other  day I was driving through town and I saw a group of high school kids running. One of them fell back from the rest and as the others turned a corner he stopped running. He then turned back and walked into the local bakery.

I wonder if he was getting a piece of chocolate cake.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dance Instructor

I had no interest in Ballroom Dancing, but I was very interested in the dance instructor’s daughter. Cindy, who I knew from King Low Heywood School, had the classic dancer’s body, long flowing black  hair, and piercing dark eyes. She was also very nice, and  not at all stuck up despite her looks. She was very easy to talk to and hinted that she was also interested in me . All of which was why I signed up for lessons at her father’s dance studio, where Cindy and and father were the two instructors. Despite his age, Cindy’s father was in great shape. Tall and thin, he seemed to glide around the floor making even the worst partner look good.

Three different groups came to the school. There were old retired couples, who always got very dressed up since this was their main social event of the week.  Then there were the kids who did not want to be there. These were the days of heavy metal bands, and that is what kids wanted to listen to. It was pure torture for them when their parents sent them to the Starlight  Dance Studio.

Then there was the group I really hated. These were the other young men who took lessons just to flirt with Cindy. Of course I was there for the same reason, but at least Cindy was interested in me. The other guys were crude and a little too “touchy” when they would dance with her. I wanted to intervene, but Cindy told me not to.

She actually did not need my help fending off unwanted advances. Years on the dance floor in revealing dresses had taught her how to take care of herself. She she was able to avoid a man’s hands with a quick spin or a slide backwards. Some guys would try to grab her during a dance, only to discover that her body had moved away long before his hand reached its intended destination. It actually became funny to watch.

At the end of the night, when everyone else had gone home, I would stay and help Cindy and her father clean up the studio. Then Cindy’s father would pour a glass of wine for each of us and we would sit and listen to one of his war stories.

It was hard to reconcile the old man dance instructor  with the young man he described in his stories. You see; he had been part of a B-17 crew in World War II and his stories were always about that.

b17 below

He has been one of the waist gunners. They were stationed in England and flew the long and dangerous bombing missions to Germany.  But he never spoke about the danger or the combat. Like a lot of men who had been in the war, he spoke about everything but the actual war.

He liked to tell Cindy and I about the funny parts of his war experience. Like the fact that there was a guy in his outfit they all called “Frenchie”.  Every night “Frenchie” would talk in his sleep. It was always in perfectly fluent French. In the morning they would tell Frenchie about it and he would swear that he had no idea how to speak French.

He also told us about how the Army Air Corps encouraged them to drink. Many of the men were so young they had never even tasted alcohol before the war. After a bombing mission, the returning crews were all marched into the Mess Hall. Lined up on the tables were shot glasses full of whiskey.  The young men were ordered, that’s right ordered to drink at least one shot each. The  senior officers somehow believed that this was the best way for the men to reduce the tension after a mission.

His longest story was about the time his own plane was hit by flak. The flak  was the anti-aircraft shells the Germans fired at the planes. In the front of each B-17 is a glass bubble where the Bombardier sits.  The Bombardier was a happy and talkative guy named Mike.

After dropping the payload on its target, the plane was hit by flak, right in the position where Mike was. The shell did not blow up since flak shells are designed to explode at a certain altitude, not when they impact with an object. The shell whet right through the glass bubble and continued up another two hundred feet until it explored.

The pilot got on the intercom to call Mike but got no reply. The rest of the crew could not check on him since the hatch to his compartment was jammed shut.  The rest of the trip back to the base in England the crew was silent, not wanting to see what Mike’s mangled body would look like when they got back.

When they landed, the ground mechanics swarmed the plane and pulled Mike out.  They could not believe their eyes. He was uninjured. The flak shell has passed through the plane inches from where Mike sat and had not touched him.

The rest of the crew surrounded Mike to ask him about it but he wouldn’t talk. He would not speak at all. They went into the mess hall and Mike had two shots of whiskey, but did not say a word. Then they all had chow. He ate, but still did not say a thing.

The crew took Mike to see the base doctor. The doctor advised them to see if they could get Mike to sleep, and if he did not then they  should stay up with him to watch him.

It was a very long night. Mike sat on the edge of his bunk just staring off into nothing. No one could get through to him.  Hours and hours went by and he did not say a word. Then as the light was beginning to break on a new day, Mike suddenly looked up and said, “That was close.” Then Mike was back to his old laughing self and his crew cheered.

Cindy and I laughed and she told her father to stop telling silly stories and help lock up for the night.

I often wondered if the war stories were true. Then one evening while couples were dancing I happened to notice Cindy’s father sitting off to the side by himself.  He did not look at all the way he looked when he knew people were watching him.

He looked like someone who had the weight of the world on his shoulders and had seen things no person should ever have to see. I realized he had never told us the other war stories. The ones about the guys who never made it back to have a drink of whiskey. The ones about the planes where the flak hit and did explode.

Then the music stopped and he got up with a big smile clapped. He told everyone how well they danced and how beautiful they all looked tonight. Then he put on more music, and Cindy and I went out to the dance floor, while her father smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guns in the attic

Wesley’s mother was beautiful and his father was insane. His mother came to all of the King Low Heywood School  soccer games. Our coaches tried to hide the fact that they were looking at her, but they were all stealing glances whenever they thought the kids were not watching. She had a natural beauty which was unusual in those days. She used no makeup and never wore any sexy clothing, but somehow that only made her more beautiful. She had long auburn hair and a slim athletic build. She never seemed aware of the impact she had on the men around her. She was always wonderfully nice to everyone. She was so sweet that the other mothers, instead of being jealous of her looks loved being her friends.

Wesley’s father was an advertising executive in New York. He took the train in all the way from Royaton ever day, so that his family could live near the beach. His specialty was products aimed at kids like toys, cookies, candies and the like. He invented Nabisco’s “Cookie Man”. The fact that he was insane was probably a great help in his profession.

Wesley, his parents and his  brothers lived in a big barn of a house. Like many of the houses in Royaton it was freezing cold in the winter. The houses near the beach had all originally been built as summer homes. It never occurred to the builders that people would live there year-round. That’s why the houses had almost no insulation, and very minor heating systems.

I found out his father was insane when I spent one Saturday at Wesley’s house. I helped Wesley and his brother put the finishing touches on model airplanes they were building. There was a B-17 and a German fighter plane. They had done a wonderful job building them, with no glue splotches, and all of the decals perfectly straight. They had even put in miniature pilots.

When the last decal was on, the dad came in and said, “Well fellows, let’s try them out.” Wesley picked up the model planes and their father pulled down the stairs to the attic.

We all climbed up the stairs and I was amazed at what I saw. From the ceiling hanging on strings was a miniature air force. German and Allied model aircraft all of World War II vintage were suspended from stings hooked to the ceiling. There must have been forty or more model airplanes. They were positioned in such a way that it looked like a full scale air battle was going on.

But the strange part was the mattresses. There were hundreds of them in the attic. They covered every part of the floor and walls. They were three, four and in some places five mattresses deep.  Wesley and his brother bounced over the mattresses until they found the perfect spots to hang their new model airplanes from the ceiling. I thought we would be going back downstairs after that, but the dad lead us over to the far side of the room where a wooden workbench was set up.  He then opened a long box next to the bench and took out a .22 caliber rifle and proceeded to load it.

He placed the loaded rifle on the workbench and then handed each of us what he called “shooters’ safely glasses” and told us to put  them on. “Remember-safety first boys”, he said. I did not know much about rifles or shooting equipment, but I did know that what he handed us were swimmers’ goggles. We also got safety equipment for our ears. These were balls of cotton with strings attached to them.

We each got a turn with the rifle. The goal was simple. Try to shoot down the German fighter planes, without hitting any of the Allied bombers. As Wesley and his brother  took turns shooting, I was petrified. What if a bullet bounced off a rafter and came back to hit one of us? What if a bullet went through the mattresses in the floor and killed Wesley’s lovely mother who was in the kitchen making cookies for all of us?

Then they handed the rifle to me. I didn’t want to do it at first, but the three of them encouraged me. Turns out it’s a lot harder to hit a model airplane then it looks, especially when you are aiming through scratched swimmer’s goggles.

But it happened. A perfect shot. After several misses, I fired a  .22 caliber round which  blew to pieces a German fighter with a red swastika on its tail. The Allied bombers around the fighter were untouched. Everyone cheered. It was thrilling.

I never told my parents about what we did at Wesley’s that day. I knew my father would have gone berserk, and my mother would have made a lot of “concerned” phone calls which would have caused  trouble for everyone. Wesley’s whole family may have been crazy, but I liked them.

Wesley married and became an Episcopal priest.  He and his wife has also spent time in the Peace Corps in Africa. I recently got the very sad news that Wesley Wubbenhorst had passed away. I still find it hard to accept. His “joie de vivra” always made him more alive that anyone  else. I never really knew what became of his parents. I like to think they spent their golden years in a luxury retirement community where the old men secretly  glanced at Wesley’s mother, while Wesley’s father shot at model boats floating in the community pool.

 

 

 

 

The Last Connecticut Gentleman

It is always strange to see your teacher outside of school, especially when you are in middle school and the teacher is someone everyone is afraid of. His name was Merritt K. Sawyer. He was a scary-looking old man. Mr. Sawyer always wore a black suit and a white shirt, and walked with a pronounced limp. He was not a large man, but he had a certain presence that immediately made anyone in the room pay attention to him.

Mr. Sawyer lived in a scary house too. It was  an old, dark green Victorian, with the yard perpetually dark due to a forest of huge, untrimmed oak trees crowding every inch of the property. Instead of a garage he had a full sized red barn with the boards sagging so much it looked like it would collapse any second. In the barn was his ancient Dodge Dart. Unlike everything else on the property, the car gleamed like it had just come out of the showroom.

King Low Heywood Thomas School Logo today

King Low Heywood Thomas School Logo today

The worst part was that Mr. Sawyer’s house was directly across the street from mine, although I never had any interaction with him outside of school. That is, until King School decided to save money by eliminating as many of the school buses as it could. Students who lived near teachers were told they would have to ride to school in a teacher’s car.  That’s how Jimmy Sachs and I ended up riding in a shiny Dodge Dart every day with the most feared teacher in Connecticut.

Since it was his car, Mr. Sawyer got to choose the radio station, and all he every picked were news stations. National news, local news, business news. I had no idea all those stations even existed. And he insisted we all discuss the stories after we heard them.  “It is important for a gentleman to be well informed,” he used to say.

Gentleman. It’s a word he used to say a lot. He seemed to be living in a different time period from the rest of the world. Jimmy and I didn’t want to be gentlemen. We wanted to be cool. How much more un-cool could you get than riding to school in an old car with an old teacher every day. But Mr. Sawyer wanted us to be gentlemen. When were  not listening to the news he lectured us on what it meant to be a gentleman. A real gentleman had to be intelligent and brave. You had to be physically strong and stand up for what is right . A gentleman is always polite. Not because he is subservient to anyone, but because he has the strength to be polite, when a lesser person would be rude or angry.

Now that we all car-pooled, Mr. Sawyer seemed to take more of an interest in the neighborhood. He started turning his lights on for Halloween, and my parents made me go tick-or-treating there. He had two kinds of treats you could choose from – Saltines or pennies (for UNICEF). People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but that is actually what he handed out on Halloween.

In February, we got a huge unexpected wet snowfall which looked like it might collapse the roof of Mr. Sawyer’s home. Jimmy and I were walking on the sidewalk when suddenly we heard Mr. Sawyer calling to us. There he was up on a flat section of his roof limping about with his bad leg and trying to push the snow off with a plastic broom. He looked like he would fall off any second.

When Jimmy and I went over with snow shovels, Mr. Sawyer met us at the door, thanked us profusely and invited us in. It was the first time either of us had ever seen the inside of his house. It was a beautiful house, with polished hardwood floors and lovely red curtains. Everything was spotlessly clean. He took us to the upstairs gust room, which had a large window from which we could climb onto the roof. The bed had a large, thick American flag draped on it. The type they put on the coffin of a soldier and then give the family. We were dying to ask about the flag, but of course did not. Was it from a family member? Had he been in the war? Is that why he had a limp?

After the day we had saved Mr. Sawyer’s roof from the snow, he seemed to loosen up on the morning drive a little. Sometimes he even let us choose a music station, although he could not help but comment on how bad our taste in music was. It was a long daily drive to the school, all the way from the beach section in Shippan Point  where we lived, to the country in the hills.

The old Connecticut was dying  and it was obvious even to us kids.  There were still working farms, but every day a few more of them got sold and turned into tract housing developments. Each day we passed a an especially beautiful farm with rolling hills, and a lovely white farm house. On a particularly sunny spring morning I happened to say, “That’s a beautiful farm.” That was when Mr. Sawyer surprised me by revealing the only piece of information I was ever to learn about his past.

“Yes it is,” he said, “When I was a boy my father almost bought that farm; but he died about a month later so we never got it. A little boy sure misses his daddy.” It seemed so strange. It was the only emotion I had ever seen from him except for anger (when the kids at school were especially loud, or late for an assembly).

One of the few remaining Connecticut working farms

One of the few remaining Connecticut working farms

My morning rides with Mr. Sawyer ended when I graduated from middle school. Of course he was still my next  door neighbor, and so I saw him outside raking leaves or washing his Dodge Dart. By the time I was a senior in high school, it was time for Mr. Sawyer to retire. Rumor was that he didn’t want to retire, but was being pushed out. The teachers and parents were having a retirement party on Saturday night for him and were going to present him with a rocking chair with a Princeton logo.

My parents had gone to the party since they had donated some money to the school. As usual, I was sitting at home doing nothing but watching T.V. when the phone rang. It was my father with an order for me. He sounded very angry and said, “Go over to Mr. Sawyer’s house and see why he isn’t here. We keep calling his house and there’s no answer. There are three hundred people here and that old fart hasn’t shown up!” He gave me a phone number and I promised I would call him back.

Mr.  Sawyer’s house looked as dark and scary as I had ever seen it. I was afraid I was going to find him dead. It was a cold night with no moon, and the clouds were blocking any stars. I walked up the old wooden porch and rang the bell. Mr. Sawyer opened the door looking very old and tired.

“Gregory,” he said. “How nice of you to come by. Please come in.”

I followed him into the living room. Mr. Sawyer mas moving and speaking very slowly, almost as if he were in a daze. I followed him into the living room and he motioned for me to sit in a plush red chair. He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a cheeseboard. “Please have some cheese and crackers and soda.”

The phone rang while he as pouring a 7-UP, and Mr. Sawyer ignored it while it rang twenty times before it finally stopped. As gently as I could I leaned forward and said, “I think that is the school. People are worried that you did not show up at your retirement party.”

“No they are not,” he replied wistfully. “They just want me out. And then what do I do? What do I do?” He had a look of real fear in his eyes. He was not the mean teacher, or the frightening man with the limp in a black suit. He was just an old man with no family worried about what would come next.

Mr. Sawyer and I sat drinking 7-UP and eating sharp cheddar. Every once and a while the phone would ring and we would ignore it. Then he walked me to the door and shook my hand. “Thank you so much for dropping by,” he said solemnly.

I called back my father and said that Mr. Sawyer had a real bad stomach virus and would not be able to make the party. He had not answered the phone since he was in the bathroom most of the time. My father was still angry, but there was not much he could do about it.

After he retired, I continued to see Mr. Sawyer around the neighborhood driving in his perfectly maintained Dodge Dart. He still handed out Saltines and pennies every Halloween. One Spring the town had a junk pick-up, and I noticed that Mr. Sawyer had thrown out a rocking chair with a Princeton logo on it.

Once and a while I would drop by his house to see how he was doing. If the weather was warm we sat on the front porch of the old Victorian having cheese and soft drinks. We never spoke about the night of his retirement party. I still listened to all the news stations, so we conversed about world events while we looked out at the huge oak trees shading his yard. Just two Connecticut gentlemen.