Old newspaper clippings reveal secrets about my father

Scan_20170118The story from the Aug. 1, 1908, Brooklyn Daily Eagle that goes with the headline above begins this way:  “A merry party of thirteen summer sojourners were returning home on Monday night from a short launch ride when an accident occurred, causing a great deal of excitement and resulting in a very thrilling and heroic rescue by one of the party.”

The rescuer, Ambrose Clegg, mentioned in the headline would become my father many years later. He was then a few weeks short of his 19th birthday. According to the story, the action took place in Centerport, Long Island, a small town on Long Island Sound. My father had been “summering” at a Franciscan Brothers’ camp at the time.

According to the newspaper, the teenage Ambrose Clegg had rowed out to the launch in a light boat to ferry a few passengers back to shore. The unfortunate Miss M. Farrell, “a young woman well known in Greenport Circles,” missed her footing and fell headlong in the deep channel. “In an instant Mr. Clegg plunged after her without waiting to remove any of his clothing” and rescued Miss Farrell, who had been carried downstream by the swift current. Later that night, the story said, a “sociable” was held at which Mr. Clegg and Miss Farrell were the recipients of many congratulations.

All of this was news to me. A relative in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Kevin Cusack, uncovered this family tale, among several others, while perusing the Newspapers.com website, a database of more than 4,600 historical newspapers. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which was founded in 1842 and folded in 1955, was once the nation’s most widely read afternoon newspaper.

My father had never seen fit to tell me this story, which was about par for our relationship. I was the last of his eight children. He was 56 when I was born and died when I was 20. We did not have heart-to-heart talks. He revealed few personal details about his life and little of his emotions. I remember him primarily as a stern, reclusive man, dedicated to teaching high school chemistry. At home, he pursued solitary hobbies. He was a knowledgeable rose grower and mineral collector. He kept more than a dozen tanks of tropical fish in the basement.

 I don’t know how young Ambrose, one of six children raised in Brooklyn by a widowed mother, came to be “summering” on Long Island. Perhaps he was working as a camp counselor. It’s hard for me to imagine my father being a member of a “merry party of thirteen summer sojourners.” The man I knew was neither merry nor sociable. He had one known friend, a fellow teacher named Mr. White, and saw him infrequently. My father did not socialize with neighbors, nor did he interact with any of my coaches. He expressed no interest in athletics.

I can see my father rushing to rescue someone in distress. He was a no-nonsense man of high principles, a protector of his children. But I had no idea he was a strong swimmer capable of rescuing a young woman swept away by an ocean current at night.

And yet, a second newspaper uncovered by my relative revealed that my father had in the 1920s been the swimming coach at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, where he taught for 38 years.  

Really, Dad?  You were a coach? You couldn’t have shared that athletic experience when I was consumed by basketball as a teenager? A conversation starter, perhaps?

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Psychedelic drugs emerging from the dark ages

The headline surprised me: “How LSD Saved One Woman’s Marriage.” That’s not the sort of thing I expect to see in the New York Times, which fancies itself the country’s newspaper of record. The times must be a-changin’.

In the accompanying story, Ayelet Waldman, a novelist and former federal public defender, tells how small amounts of LSD gave her release from depression and the grip of bipolar disorder.

“I didn’t do this on a lark,” she said. “I did this because I was afraid I was going to kill myself.”

The topic of microdosing has gained currency outside drug-enthusiast circles and renewed interest in banned psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, according to the Times.

Microdosing “has been embraced by a subculture of boundary-pushing (and law-flouting) career-minded people as something of an illicit, chemical form of yoga — an alternative health regimen intended to bring mental balance, as well as enhance productivity.”

I hope this story marks the beginning of the legalization of psychedelic drugs. But I wish the Times and other mainstream publications had written accounts like this 50 years ago. We might not have lost an entire generation of scientific investigation or persecuted prophets like Timothy Leary for trying to understand the mysteries of the mind.

Before Leary became an LSD cult guru, he was a researcher on the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which started in 1960. The project looked into the ability of the drug to stimulate religious states in seminary school students and to alter the criminal behavior of prisoners.  In the 1950s, other academic researchers had begun investigating potential applications of hallucinogenic drugs in psychotherapy and treatment of mental disorders.  On the dark side, the CIA conducted secret experiments on the effects of LSD.

In the late 1960s, when I felt I was living in a country gone mad, I experimented with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. It was a transformative experience that enabled me to smell the roses on the way to increasingly violent anti-war demonstrations. I also became conscious of inhabiting a body that functioned better on brown rice and fruit rather than Hostess cherry pies and Sunshine Cheez-Its. I lost 20 pounds in a few months and cut my smoking by two-thirds.

For better or worse, I had a few eye-opening bad trips that made me wary of being an explorer in this foreign country. I substituted meditation for mescaline as a more structured way to go beyond the doors of perception. Eventually, I caught the last train to the middle class and got caught up in career ambition, mortgages and gardening. Age made me cautious about experimenting with brain chemistry.

Waldman recounts her microdosing experience in a memoir titled “A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life.”  In 2011, James Fadiman, a Bay Area psychologist who studied under Timothy Leary, published “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys.”

The message has been spreading, the Times reported.  One microdosing forum on Reddit has more than 11,000 subscribers, and the practice has been picked up as a trend du jour in publications as diverse as Vice, Marie Claire and Inc., which tend to profile a handful of anonymous professionals who say they have achieved an enhanced “flow state” at work through the practice.

Given the craziness of today’s political climate, I doubt we are entering a new age of enlightenment and openness to expanded research on psychedelic drugs. Best of luck to today’s explorers.

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Reflections on ants, coyotes, morality and death

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Ants found a trap in our kitchen cabinet.

Ants found a trap in our kitchen cabinet.

I won’t pretend to feel guilty. I wiped out hundreds of ants last night with poison spray. They were in a kitchen cabinet near the back door. They were on the wall above the cabinet and on molding extending down to the floor.

The whole thing was disgusting. It still is. Their corpses are piled up in the cabinet. They hang from the wall. They litter the floor. I delayed a cleanup in hopes of wiping out any guerrilla scouts that might be searching for the missing troops.

Last night’s annihilation marked the latest battle in the kitchen since the heavy rains began a few days ago. The ants had invaded on a new front after suffering major casualties of the northern and eastern fronts – the food cabinets and sink area.

The ant attacks are nothing new. They flare up every year during the rainy season. The drought years have limited our winters of discontent. My wife and I don’t believe in monthly spraying of pesticides outside the house. We would prefer not to use a weapon of mass destruction like Raid, especially in the kitchen, but revulsion and despair can overcome our resistance.

Ironically, the ants last night were led to their deaths by their attraction to a box trap I had stored in the cabinet. I had tried a couple of traps under the sink and near the garbage can with no success. Somehow, the ants had discovered this unused ant trap on a shelf four feet off the floor. Their sense of smell must be incredible. But, hey, our kitchen isn’t a laboratory for the study of ant behavior.

Nor is it a sanctuary for all living creatures. I am not a Buddhist who refuses to kill any living thing. If an unwanted creature is in my kitchen, I’ll get rid of it. This doesn’t necessarily mean its death. As a longtime journalist, I respect creepy-crawlies that have good press agents, such as ladybugs. They are hailed as beneficial insects and allies of gardeners. If I see one in the kitchen, I will gently capture it and place it on a plant outside.

This seeming good deed, of course, means I have put an efficient killer in a spot where it can devour smaller, weaker creatures. What kind of moral system is that? Next thing you know, I’ll be advocating for coyotes that roam around places like Lake Natoma just because they look like splendid creatures of the wild.

Did you happen to see the picture in last week’s Sacramento Bee of a coyote resting on a road in the Folsom State Recreation Area? This fine-looking animal was an emissary from the wilderness, according to longtime observers. It had established a relationship with homeless folks in the area and taken to dining with them.

When I read the Bee story, I thought of early human beings and their initial encounters with wolf-like creatures that warily approached their caves. Think of all the goodness that has evolved between humans and dogs because of that successful interaction.

Alas, things did not go so well in our local area. The coyote was gunned down by a federal agent on grounds that it posed a threat to non-homeless people who like to experience the great outdoors by hiking and picnicking there.

Homeless people eager for handouts might want to start rethinking their relationship with the visiting human population.

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Ending landline-phone service was quite an adventure

This unit on the outside wall of our house regulates power for our landline phone as well as TV and Internet service.

This unit on the outside wall of our house regulates power for our landline phone as well as TV and Internet service.

The Consolidated Communications representative told me I would need to return the landline-phone battery unit before service could be terminated. She said it was a fairly large unit that I would find outside my house somewhere.

That part was easy. I found a complicated-looking black box inside a plastic housing attached to the back wall. I was surprised by the number of wires and connectors going into the unit. I assumed the battery was part of this device, but what did I know about the operation of a landline phone?

Nothing much. All I knew for sure was that my wife and I were tired of robo calls and people with foreign accents telling us the IRS wanted our money immediately. We figured we could survive with our cellphones and save about $20 on monthly fees.

As I examined the black unit, I didn’t see an easy way to free it from the plastic housing. I also didn’t know whether I needed to turn off the electricity before disconnecting all those wires. I was particularly uneasy about a thick wire that went up to the roof and stretched across the backyard to a power pole.

I could feel my frustration rising. An interior voice reminded me of my many failures at mechanical and home repairs. Just quit and pay a technician to remove the device, this critical voice said. Better to spend a hundred bucks instead of screwing everything up or getting electrocuted.

A calmer voice urged patience. Do a little online research and call Consolidated Communications’ customer service in the morning. Perhaps there’s a little trick to removing the battery unit. If the company expects customers to return the unit, how difficult could the process be?

The Internet gave me no answers. The woman in customer service did not know how to take out the battery. She did, however, sound perplexed about the presence of an outside battery. “Let me put you on hold for a minute,” she said.

When the rep returned, she delivered this surprise announcement:  “I checked into what equipment you have, and there’s no need to take anything out. We can end landline service over the phone.”

“Well, that makes things a lot easier,” I said. “Any idea why I was told to remove the unit?”

“You shouldn’t have been told that,” she said. “That unit also regulates your TV and Internet service.”

“I guess that explains why there were so many wires going into it,” I said, as my mind filled with images of the major mess I had averted. For once, my caution and hesitancy to do a home project had paid off.  I wondered whether the unit even contained a battery.

“I think you should talk to that other customer-service rep,” I said ever so politely.

I was assured that would be done, and apologies were made for the confusion.

Having been tethered to a landline phone all my life, I feel a little uneasy about giving it up. I’m glad the equipment is still in place — and providing TV and Internet service.

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So Zack’s a little husky, so what?

Zack had no interest in stepping on the scale.

Zack had no interest in stepping on the scale.

“Any chance Zack is a Maine Coon Cat?”

My wife shook her head. She knew where I was going with that question. I suspect she had already done her own research.

Two guests over the holidays had seen fit to comment on how big Zack looked. In fact, one was blunt enough to ask, “Is he overweight?”

Who asks a question like that in this day and age? And what is the underlying message? That Zack has become less worthy as a cat? That he has failed to measure up to societal views on feline attractiveness? That he is lazy and unproductive?

Carol and I had noticed that Zack, age 3½, walked with a certain swagger. We had remarked on what looked like a rather thick winter coat. We obviously knew he was larger but didn’t dwell on it. Zack went out every night and disappeared until the early morning. He was eager to play games in the house, run up and down stairs and leap several feet onto forbidden countertops.

“Maybe we should weigh him,” Carol said the other night.

Zack was not eager to get on the scale. I weighed myself and then picked up Zack. The display number increased by 13 pounds. I checked Zack’s veterinary records. One year ago, he weighed 11.05 pounds.

“What do you think?” Carol asked.

“Guess we should look into it,” I said reluctantly.

That’s when I discovered Zack’s 13-pound weight would be of no concern if he were a Maine Coon Cat, with an impressive weight range of 10 to 20 pounds. But typical domestic cats like Zack go 8 to 10 pounds; Persians, 7 to 12 pounds; and Siamese, 5 to 10 pounds, according to the Purina Cat Chow website.

This site and others recommended doing a visual and physical inspection. Alas, Zack did not fit the profile of an ideal cat, and while I could feel his ribs, his stomach definitely did not tuck in behind the rib cage when viewed from the side. Did he have fat deposits at the base of his tail? I couldn’t imagine what they would look like.

 Carol and I concluded we had tendencies to buy Zack’s good will with too many treats. The Black Forest ham tidbits I often give him before his nightly outings could be eliminated. We don’t plan any drastic cutbacks before we talk to the vet and discuss the health implications of Zack’s weight.

Maybe he’s just “a growing boy.” That was a phrase my mother employed when clothing salesmen shunted me off to the husky-boys section. It’s good for the self-image.

 

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