Pheasant Under Glass
On April 15, '55, I meet Einstein again, now on the cobblestones of the train station at Princeton Junction. That's when I get his autograph. Fortunately, I still have a piece of paper and pencil in my Loden coat. Just the night before, I'd been on Steve Allen's 'Tonight Show' with choir mates. With Oliver Andes and Travis Bryant, I'd seen Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme necking back-stage. I skipped that fascination and moved on to get a signature from Skip Henderson and his wife Faye Emerson. Skip was The Tonight Show's band leader and how I love Big Band. That next morning, on a commute back to Princeton, I connect with the good doctor at the station.
He's not feeling too good, as he shuffles in his sandaled socks, leaning on some close family or friend. Einstein dies three days later, after a good deal of delusional incoherent palaver. We'll never know what the doctor said in his final hours, it's reputed, because no one is attending who can understand German. Unashamed by his celebrated genius, but clearly troubled by its exploitation, it's doubtless that he took many secrets with him.***************
By mid October of that year, I'm in a Greyhound bus as a boychoir member, on a tour through the South. We stop off for a concert at Southern Pines. I'll sleep there on raw silk, as a house guest of a golfer and his wife. Active Arts patrons.
We leave that idyll just as Hurricane Hazel makes her landfall at the border between North and South Carolina. By then, she has a punch of 150 mph. We ply the highway as the trees shudder in a horizontal rain. I'm in the rear of the bus at the small spinet piano used for rehearsals and the occasional piano practice. In front, riding shotgun, are two great men of music pedagogy: Herbert Huffman (who founded the Columbus Boychoir, transplanted to a country estate outside Princeton, in 1951); Donald Bryant, Julliard graduate, piano virtuoso sans pareil, and assistant conductor. Two other adults are ob board: Glen Scott, at the wheel, and Ethel Sprague, an tutor who covers the daily grind of the 3 Rs.
We're on our way through an as-yet un-air-conditioned South, ending in Miami for our last concert. South... from whence I spring.
The bus takes a jerk as the right windshield explodes. An eviscerated pheasant, its entrails with shards of glass, flies through the length of the bus, brains and all, stopped only by the rear window.
That boy choir experience will serve to teach me much about the perils that await an itinerant musician, the joys of collaboration, and the what all derives from esprit de corps.***************
With two brothers at Andover, and another at a pre-prep Fessenden Academy (outside Boston in West Newton), my parents decided their fourth son might benefit from an immersion in music studies. Off I go to Princeton. In no time at all, September's Labor Day weekend turns up a quick reunion home for Thanksgiving. Back to the place I now love, I'm happily a boarder, eager to escape the industrial suffocation of the Pittsburgh area, where my father has taken a post as a hospital supervisor. I seek the rapture of "Albemarle", a 400 wooded estate built in 1917 by Gerard Lambert. Now, where the boy choir bivouacs. I hop on the Pennsylvania rail road and take my first sleeper back to New Jersey. I learn how to navigate the dining car. I make a plea to a white coated waiter, for a piece of apple pie. I have no money. I am so hungry.
The waiter takes me under his wing, and treats me to a meal, out of his own pocket. He is a negro, and I have just been nurtured across the racial divide, never to go back again. I manage to get his name and address, and my parents reimburse him. My Christmas card follows.***************
A year earlier, a school mate named Chet Allen had appeared in Menotti's opera for T.V., 'Amahl and the Night Visitors'. That opera is greeted by such popular approval (indeed, television in those early days of network programming) was rife with "serious" music, dialogue driven drama, and humor that didn't rely on reference to flatulence).
The New York and Philadelphia Operas want a boy to play the field in their stagings of 'Amahl'. As Chet was being retired at his voice-change, I'm offered the honor. After some careful thought, my parents agree.
Since the part requires a built-to-fit crutch for the crippled Amahl, we fashion one at the school, with a nice pad at the underarm. I practice my limp. Soon, I'm hobbling on that crutch through NYC's vast Pennsylvania Station, following my tutor Mr. Ritchie, begging mawkishly "...please Mr. Ritchie, wait for me... I'm going as fast as I can...". Mr. Ritchie moves mutely forward, flushed red with embarrassment, under the disapproving glare of the passing commuters. What a student can inflict on a teacher, with an air of impunity finally may come back to haunt him in later life.
God bless Mr. Ritchie, and all those who followed in their further unrewarded academic efforts toward me. May they rest in peace.