Commentary: Memories, hope, as another challenging year ends
by John Pixley
“John – you remember me?”
I looked up. It was a surprising question. At least not one I was expecting.
I was going along, minding my own business, waiting at the cash register at the Kiwanis Club pop-up See’s Candies holiday store, getting some Christmas shopping done. (Actually, I went in to buy a box for myself and then decided to also pick up some gifts — sort of like, one for me, four for you. I was also pleased that I was there early in the season, unlike when I went last year, only to find the store shuttered, after the candy sold out. And who doesn’t like See’s?)
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that the man at the cash register recognized me and wondered if I recognized him. After all, the Kiwanis Club is full of long-time Claremonters, and, to say the least, I have been around for a while.
I looked at the man and saw a broad forehead with kind, almost twinkling eyes, topped with a neat layer of white hair. I wanted to recognize him — I really did, feeling like this was a quiz, and I was failing — but I didn’t.
“Does this help?” he asked, removing his mask. There, to go with those kind eyes, were red cheeks and a broad, open smile. He looked like a youthful, trim, clean-shaven Santa, but I was pretty sure that’s not who this guy was. Something was familiar, very vaguely familiar, but — nope — I was bombing.
With almost a chuckle, he said. “It’s Mr. Patterson. From El Roble?”
Of course! I should have known! (Isn’t this what always happens?)
It was Ralph Patterson, who taught the marine biology class I took when I was at El Roble Junior High. Didn’t he also go on to be an administrator at the school district? And — hello! — there was a big hint, with “Ralph” sewn on the front of the apron he was wearing.
I laughed. Of course, it was Ralph Patterson. I remembered enjoying marine biology more than I thought I would. He was a good teacher.
We agreed that it was nice to see each other after so many years — 40, at least — and wish each other happy holidays. I left the store smiling with a bag full of quality See’s Candies, satisfied that I had checked some people off my shopping list and also scoring a box to enjoy myself. I also left bathed in memories, mostly warm, of El Roble.
Mr. Patterson’s class, I recalled, was a door or two down from the room where we disabled students were based for the first time at the junior high school that year with Anita Hughes, who came with us from Danbury School. Leonard Gaylord was the principal then and had been the principal at Danbury during some of my years there, where he read “Tom Sawyer” with a few of us.
I also remembered my English teacher, Carol Schowalter, the legendary Ms. S, who was and is hated and loved by thousands of us who had her — hated for how much work she assigned and how hard she was, loved for how much she cared for us and instilled in us the invaluable value of discipline and hard work. I remembered visiting her often in her classroom in later years, when she called herself an old lady, and meeting her widowed friend Mel, whom she was thrilled to marry a few (too few) years before she died. I also remembered literally carrying a typewriter on my lap as I rode to and from her class in my wheelchair.
It was a spectacular fall day, clear and with leaves falling around Little Bridges on the Pomona College campus. It was also quite warm but not unbearable. A perfect day for an outdoor concert.
Which is exactly what we got as the Pomona College Band, lead by the stalwart and welcoming Graydon Beeks, played on the steps of Little Bridges. This was a break from the concerts indoors, with the iPads set up outside for filling out health attestation forms. For one concert, the college orchestra played in the cavernous Bridges Auditorium, spread out on its enormous stage, and where entering was like going through a TSA line, requiring the health attestation plus proof of COVID vaccination. At the college choir concert later, the choir was spread out over the entire ground floor of Little Bridges, with the audience, except those in wheelchairs, in the balcony. At this outdoor concert, masks were still mandated.
The band played a piece that wasn’t on the program. Mr. Beeks explained it was a small section of a large-scale work by former band leader William Blanchard which included the choir and premiered in Bridges Auditorium during World War II and which was a plea for peace.
When the concert ended with a march, I found myself feeling downright patriotic sitting there in my mask, doing my part in this pandemic, in contrast to those who wave the flag and claim that they stand for freedom as they rant and rail against and refuse mask-wearing and vaccines, common-sense measures to get us all out of this hell.
At the other colleges, meanwhile, all concerts were being held outdoors. Okay, but how would this work when it got cold? And perhaps wet? People may be fine with sitting there in masks —but not shivering and exposed to whatever elements.
So it was probably inevitable when the December concerts were held in Garrison Theater.
When the theater manager welcomed the audience before the choir concert, he said it was the first indoor concert there in 20 months. Twenty months. I found myself with a lump in my throat.
We are living in historic times, historic, hard, strange, sometimes wonderful times.