Tuesday, March 12, 2013

MS. BELDEN - LITERATURE TEACHER

As the day neared for my first day at Ruskin High School I found myself dreading it.  I was getting tired of going to school.  I was coming off of a three year stint at Smith-Hale Junior High School which I had gone through my eight grade year and my Freshman year in the system.  My freshman year had been a roller coaster affair.  The classes I had taken my freshman year were interesting and I had been lucky enough to have decent teachers, a couple of them were good teachers and one of them was a horrible excuse for a teacher.  The horrible teacher was my composition/literature teacher and personally I did not think he should have ever been allowed to teach.  I still feel that way up to this day.  Because of the experience with that teacher, I had grown a distaste for any subject involving English.  I knew I had more English courses ahead of me as I entered the home stretch of the public school system towards graduation in 1975.

It was the fall of 1972 when I first stepped into Ruskin as a student.  I had mapped out a plan that hopefully would allow me to graduate at the semester break of my senior year.  My sister had graduated just 3 months before with the class of 1972, and so I was the third one of us kids to enter the halls of Ruskin.  My sister had seemed to enjoy her time there.  She was involved in the pep club and the school choir and had lots of friends that I had come to know over the years.  I don't know how much she really enjoyed Ruskin because the two of us did not do much talking to each other.  Then again, I don't recall her ever complaining about the school, so I figured if I just kept to myself and did the work and put up with the teachers, I just might make it out early.  That was my plan.

At the time Ruskin was experimenting with classes, trying to bring in a wider variety of subjects that might help hold the students interest and give us a better rounded education.  They had introduced classes such as Russian History, Language of Film,  and other new classes.  Some of these caught my eye.  I did take Russian History which I found fascinating and I took the film class which was okay, but more just something to fill my English requirements.  There was another class being offered that sound right up my alley.  It was called Literature of Protest.  It was described as a study of some of the great literary works that served as protests to the way different classes were treated through out the world and through history.  It was one of the first classes I signed up for at Ruskin and was able to get into it before it filled up.  In reality though, there was not a chance that this class was going to be filled, which still kind of puzzles me.  Some of my classmates that I had been going to school with my whole life seemed like they would be naturals for this kind of course but as I walked into the classroom that first day, I found myself to be the lone sophomore in the class.  I became very nervous.

She walked into the classroom just a few minutes late.  She was short but it didn't seem to bother her because she did not try to heighten herself with any kind of heel on her shoes but wore simple flats.  She dressed very plainly.  You would not find her in any bright colors or even dresses.  She wore straight skirts that were usually dark in color and a blouse, sometimes white with a Mr. Rogers type sweater over it.  Her hair was medium length coming down to just the top of her shoulders and was straight.   She did not wear much makeup at all.  She walked very straight and fast, seemingly not wanting to waste any time at all.  For such a small person, she seemed to be a little intimidating.

Her name was Priscilla Belden.  She was feisty and I felt like I was going to like her right away.  The first words out of her mouth as she strutted into the classroom was directed at students that had been in her class before, or so it seemed.  She was irritated.  "What happened to my radio station over the summer??" she asked incredulously. She walked to the back of the room where I saw a radio receiver on the shelf and she reached up and turned it on followed by frantically trying to find a station that she wanted to listen to.  She finally settled on some classical music, but it was obvious it wasn't her first choice.  Then I spotted a familiar logo sticker on the shelf next to the radio.  It was the logo for station KBEY 104.3.  I was very familiar with KBEY.  It was an FM station that had developed in the early days of FM rock.  It was practically commercial free and played some of the most progressive underground rock that there was to be played.  They played songs that lasted WELL over three minutes and by groups that most average music fans would not have heard of at the time.  They played the San Fransisco sounds of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane as well as Iron Butterfly.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer was a popular choice on the station as well as early Alice Cooper, The Band, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, just a lot of groups that never saw the light of day on the AM top forty stations.  This station played hardcore hard rock twenty four seven and a lot of the songs they played would not be your ordinary love songs but songs of conscience that challenged the status quo of politics, art, and music.  KBEY was your typical big city underground radio station and Ms. Belden apparently took it very seriously.

I had become acquainted with KBEY through my friend Scott (Warped Rolling Stones record, bull teaser, shoot me with a pellet gun Scott.  If you have read my blog for a while, you have been introduced to Scott a few times and will understand that of course, it would be Scott that would listen to KBEY).  Over the summer of 1972, KBEY had been bought by a national syndicate of radio stations that were spreading nationwide.  They were known as the "SUPER Q" stations and their plan, which really was a good plan, was to bring AM top forty over to the FM side.  KBEY had become KBEQ-SUPER Q over the summer.  Ms Belden's underground social message hard rock was playing songs that did not sound like the songs she was use to hearing.  She was hearing songs that kids in the seventh grade were swooning over.  Ms. Belden was not a happy camper.  As I would get to know her better during my years at Ruskin, I would find out that she was from Minnesota and went and stayed with her family during the summers which would explain her shock at coming home to find her underground station turned into a top forty format which she absolutely despised.

That was my introduction to Ms. Belden and now it is yours as well.  After my disastrous freshman year of literature composition with a teacher that did not know how to inspire his students to read and write well, this first semester with Ms. Belden was like a breath of fresh air.  She introduced me to fiction writers that I had not heard of but learned to appreciate their work almost as much as I did Steinbeck.  We read Sinclair Lewis and his stories from the fictional city of Zenith.  I became familiar with Elmer Gantry, Dr. Arrowsmith and my favorite of his characters, George F. Babbit.  His books were protest literature as much as Steinbeck's Joad family, Lenny and George, and Doc.  Ms. Belden taught me how to read fiction that had meaning and I began to search out and read a little more fiction then I had before.  The fiction I searched for had to have a purpose, not just a story that came out of somebody's mind but a story meant to make a difference.  A story written to open the eyes of the general public into the flaws of human nature and class societies.  We read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" which exposed the meat packing industry in the United States and opened it up to federal investigations and regulations.  We read Tolstoy and other Russian novelists who wrote books against the Russian regimes that controlled the people of the Soviet Union.  These authors were putting their very lives at stake by writing their novels for the world to see.  Ms. Belden repaired the damage done the year before to my excitement that I had for reading books.

She also had us do some compositions dealing with subjects in American society that we found to be lacking in control and fairness.  We wrote our own protest papers and figured out what we thought would be an utopian society and put it down on paper.  I began to write again without the fear of being shredded in front of the whole class.  She respected ideas from her students and encouraged us to express those ideas through writing, reading and talking about what we had learned.  I was back on the literature/composition train that I use to love so much but had been destroyed the previous year.

I ended up taking every class that Ms. Belden taught.  I realized that I could communicate with her on a teacher/student level I had not felt before.  In my mind she was what every teacher should strive for.  Build your students up, give them confidence in what they do and treat them with respect when they make a mistake or misunderstand a point.  I was taking one of her classes during the Senate Watergate Hearings and she had a television in the room so we could watch it.  It was important to her to watch, listen and then discuss.  She knew there would be a plethora of books published after the whole mess had faded off into history and she wanted to teach us how to read these books with critical thinking.

She spent her time actively preparing her students for college and she did a fine job of it.  When I took literature and composition classes in college, I always looked back to what Ms. Belden had taught me on how to read, how to be critical, and then how to express what I had learned from the research.

In all my years of schooling, from Kindergarten right through college I had some pretty good teachers.  A couple of those teachers I would even classify as great teachers, but  I would always look back on those two and a half years with Ms. Belden and know without a doubt that she was by far the best teacher I had ever had.  To this day I still feel that way about her as a teacher.  We need more Ms. Beldens in today's schools.  They are out there but they are few and far between.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

MONTEREY

Anyone who knows me very well know that I am not much of a fiction reader or writer.  Every once in a while I try a fiction story and I usually fail at it.  I can name a list of non-fiction authors like I love to read and respect but my list of fiction writers is very small.  Among the fiction writers that I like to read are John Grisham, Edgar Allen Poe and Bob Woodward.  Now I know that there are a lot of people who consider Woodward a non-fiction writer so please don't comment that I am wrong about Woodward being a fiction writer.  I am well aware that a lot of his fiction is cataloged under the classification of non-fiction.  Personally I consider Woodward's "All The President's Men" and "The Brotherhood" as two great works of fiction that were so good most people consider them to be non-fiction.  My thoughts on Woodward are not what this entry is about though.  This entry concerns itself with who I consider the greatest modern American fiction author of the last century.  That author is John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck was a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning author.  He hailed from northern California and wrote masterpiece after masterpiece.  Most students of literature are familiar with at least a few of his books.  "The Grapes of Wrath", "Of Mice and Men", and "East of Eden" are the books that most literature students are familiar with.  These books deal with life in the 1930's in Northern California and how class struggles effected the people who lived during that time.

Two other great works of Steinbeck's included a short story called "Sweet Thursday" and a novel entitled "Cannery Row".  Now, Cannery Row was possibly my favorite of Steinbeck's works.  It deals with the area around Monterey  Bay and the cannery's that once flourished on the northern California area.  During the 30's Cannery Row started to fade away under economic pressures.  Soon there were just a small population of homeless bums, whores who entertained men of the armed forces who found their way down to the area, and a professor of Biology who Steinbeck named simply "Doc".

A lot of literature experts think that Cannery row was a semi biographical work that Steinbeck wrote after spending time south of Monterey.  I am not going to go into the the actual plot of Cannery Row, but I do encourage everyone to read it or at least one of Steinbeck's other books.  This is the story of going in search of Steinbeck's Cannery Row.  Steinbeck was one of the best authors in being able to paint a picture with his words.  He would describe the scene and the area where the story was taking place so simply and yet so detailed that you would be transported to the area of a depleted area in Northern California where the canneries use to be busy day in and day out packing and shipping seafood to places around the country.  Now it consisted of an old hotel/restaurant called the Bear Flag Inn which was really a glorified whore house, a laboratory where Doc would study marine animals that he would collect off the shores of the bay, and the places where the homeless men lived and tried to survive.  It was old.  It was a dirty place and an eccentric place.  You could see all the different parts of the town that wasn't there anymore and smell the sea in the bay.  It was a place that resided in my mind.

In the late 50's or early 60's, my uncle Dan lived in Northern California.  He was being trained at Fort Ord to learn the Russian language in order to be able to intercept Russian radio transmissions and decode them during the Cold War.  Yes, he was considered a spy and would carry out his duties of using this training in north Japan in the 60's.  But for now he was in California and one summer my grandparents went out to California to visit him.  One of the places that my grandparents visited was the old cannery row area of Monterey and it did impress my grandfather for many years.  You see, my grandfather was quite a reader himself and he was well aware of the works of Steinbeck,including Cannery Row.

Jumping in time to the early 80's, I found myself with a chance that I could not pass up.  Dit-MCO was developing a new testing system that used optics to find faults in printed circuit boards.  It was ground breaking technology at the time and a portion of our Engineering department was assigned to the optical group.  I was lucky to be put on the team.  Being on the team meant that we entered into a contract to work with an optical engineering company located in Berkeley California.  For five years members of the team would fly out to the San Fransisco Bay area to do work on the systems.  We would spend a week or two out there then come back to Kansas City for a week or two before heading back west again.  It was exciting work and gave us plenty of time to explore the Northern California area.

One of my fellow travelers was an engineer by the name of Bill Wilson.  Wilson was a world traveled person who had been in the army, had worked under contract in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world.  While Wilson was in the army, he was stationed at Fort Ord for a while.  One weekend, Wilson and myself were getting ready for another trip out west when Wilson got an idea.  He wanted to fly out west early and drive down to Monterey and visit his old Fort and see Pebble Beach Golf course.  To me this meant that it would also include a trip to Cannery Row.  The next day I went to have lunch with my grandparents and told Grandpa that I was planning a side trip down to Monterey.

 Grandpa's eyes lit up so brightly when I told him this.  He proceeded to tell me all about the time he visited Cannery Row twenty years earlier.  He told me it was incredible.  It was just as Steinbeck described it, he said.  He went on and on about how on target the book was in describing the old run down area.  In all of his life he had never visited a place and felt like he had already been there by reading a book.  "You are going to LOVE it", Grandpa said.  My excitement level went through the roof.  I was going to be where Steinbeck had been, see what he had seen and get a fuller understanding of what Steinbeck was writing about when he wrote Cannery Row.

The next weekend Wilson and myself caught the earliest flight out to San Fransisco.  We immediately rented a car and instead of heading across the bay to Berkeley, we headed south towards Monterey.  It wasn't too far of a drive, maybe a couple of hours.  It was a beautiful drive up through the hills and heading down the coast with the ocean out of one of the windows practically the whole way.  Eventually we arrived in the Monterey area.  Our first stop would be Fort Ord.

Fort Ord was no longer the huge facility it had once been they were closing it down.  The roads were still open but all the military personnel were gone.  It was like a ghost town that was still in fairly good shape.  Wilson drove me around the old fort and showed me where he had done things, where the firing range had been and we drove by the barracks where Wilson had lived part of his life.  After a few hours, Wilson was finally pleased with his visit to the Fort and we began to follow signs that showed up every so often indicating the way to Monterey's famed Cannery Row district.  The excitement was building as we inched closer to a place that had lived in my mind since I was a child.

Suddenly we saw a sign that said "Cannery Row" and we slowly drove in.  There were two huge parking lots filled with cars and people walking everywhere.  Slowly my heart began to sank.  I did not at first see any of the landmarks of a cannery, a walk across from the cannery to the mainland that was about two stories up off of the ground.  In Steinbeck's Cannery Row, these walk acrosses were at every building all down the coast, each one a different fishery company.  We parked the car and got out.  I looked around for the old Bear flag Inn that my grandpa had said wasn't ACTUALLY there as the Bear Flag Inn, but there was an old hotel that looked like Steinbeck said the Bear Flag Inn looked like.  My eyes landed an a huge building up the hill from the parking lot.  It was painted brown and a very bright orange with a huge sign that said  "BEAR FLAG INN".  It was a huge restaurant and hotel and did not look like anything Steinbeck had written about.  We walked around a bit.  There was a huge aquarium built with a line of people waiting to get inside.  There were other attractions, none that appeared in the book.  I can not ever being so brought down from the expectations that I had built up in my mind.

We began to do some exploring away from all the touristy things and came upon my first indication that someone realized that Steinbeck had been here.  It was off towards a path that went down to the bay.  There sat a bronze bust of John Steinbeck on a pedestal about five feet tall.  The inscription said something about that the great author had spent some time here and based his book Cannery Row on the area.  From standing next to the bust of Steinbeck, I looked off to the south and saw one of the old walkovers left over from Steinbeck's day.  Just one.  It looked like whoever had come in and consumerised the area had forgotten to get rid of that last thing that looked like it was from the book.  It was nice to see, but just the one by itself took away so much of the feel of what Steinbeck had described.  After a little more walking around we stumbled across a small building.  It was halfway underground and was locked up.  It had old windows all around it and was painted a dirty white.  At the front door was a historical marker.  It said that it is believed that this was the building that most experts thought was Doc's lab from Cannery Row and suggested that in fact, Steinbeck himself probably had lived here for awhile.

That was it.  We left "Cannery Row" disappointed.  I think Wilson was disappointed because he knew I was.  I was disappointed because consumerism had destroyed something that could and should have been saved because it was made into a big part of Americana by the great author.

After that, we drove on down to the golf courses that included Pebble Beach and drove around taking in the beauty that is northern California.  I can't say I didn't enjoy the 17 mile drive, but the reality of Cannery Row had certainly dampened my excitement.

At the end of the day we drove back to Berkeley and checked into the hotel to prepare for work the next day.  All week my mind would wander back to the destruction of Cannery Row. I wish I could have seen what My grandpa and John Steinbeck had seen.  No one would ever see it again.  It was gone.  It was lost.  Money had won out over history as it does so often.

When I returned to Kansas City, I visited my grandpa and told him what I had found, what had confronted me in my search for Steinbeck and cannery row. My grandpa's eyes dulled a little as he listened to my description of what investors had done to that special place.  He felt sorry that I had missed it.  I could feel his own disappointment in what had once been being gone.

Writers like Steinbeck do not come along very often.  Places like Cannery Row are not available to be be restored to the way it was to hold onto to just a little bit of history.  When an author like Steinbeck and a place like Cannery Row do come together, everything should be done to preserve them together as one.

Friday, March 1, 2013

SUMMER OF '68

It has been forty five years gone by this summer since what I consider the year that I started noticing the world outside of Missouri.  I was eleven years old as 1968 rolled onto the history rolls and I began to become aware of seeing Walter Cronkite every night at 5:30 in the evening.  No matter where I happened to be Cronkite would be on the television every evening.  My parents were staunch followers of Cronkite as were my grandparents.  He was called the most trusted man in America and from what I remember, that was pretty much true.

Cronkite did not report the news as they do now.  Cronkite gave facts and would let the viewer interpret what it meant to them.  That is how I remember it anyway.  Cronkite would tell the facts then once or twice during the broadcast a reporter out in the field would make a report from the scene of the story so that you could picture what was going on a little clearer.  Today's newscasts seem to go out of their way to tell you what it means instead of just giving you the story.  As a matter of fact, there is a commercial on the Oprah Winfrey Network that has Tom Brokaw, another very well respected news anchor, saying that people don't want you just to tell them the story, they want you to tell them what it means.  This is where the news industry has gone wrong over the last forty five years.  This is why if you are a conservative any argument you give for an opinion is disregarded if you quote from Fox News, or if you are a liberal the same holds if you quote from MSNBC.  The news organizations have agendas now.  Forty five years ago, you couldn't tell what Cronkite's political leanings were, and that is how it should be.

Back to 1968 though.  I started the year an eleven year old in fifth grade and would end the year as a twelve year old in sixth grade.  Between January first and December thirty first, there would be a summer that would live forever in history.  It was probably the most turbulent time in American History aside from the Civil War years and the founding of the country.

It was the year that we began to look at current events in school.  Instead of show and tell on Fridays, we would have to cut out an article from the newspaper of a current event and write what we thought about it and share it with the class.  It was an eye opening experience for me.

I was aware of a war being fought in a country called Vietnam but had not paid much attention to it until that year.  It seemed that every night there would be a report from Morley Safer from Vietnam as he sat with the troops who were fighting the war.  Americans who had never seen war before suddenly were observing what war was like for the first time.  Every night at the end of the broadcast, Cronkite would give the tally for the number of soldiers killed and wounded of both the Viet Cong and the United States.  The numbers were sobering as I realized that these were people actually dying in an effort to preserve freedom for people who did not want to come under totalitarian rule.  At one point I must have come to realize that one day, I might be one of those soldiers in Vietnam fighting for the American ideal of freedom as the leaders of the free world.  It was then that I started to pay close attention to the war and the film that Safer was sending home to be televised every night.

On January 30, 1968 I became aware that in war, there are really no rules.  It was the lunar New Year, otherwise known as Tet.  Tet was almost like Christmas to the Americans.  There had been an agreement that had held for years that Tet would be met with a ceasefire from all sides in the conflict.  Tet of 1968 the agreement was broken.  The Viet Cong attacked through out South Vietnam striking cities and hamlets and bases catching the Americans and South Vietnamese by surprise.  It was one of the most devastating days in the history of the war.  I think that Tet of 1968 was what really woke me up to taking an interest in world events, politics, along with the civil rights movement.  It was also at this time that I took notice of the differences between two men that would effect my political philosophy for the rest of my life.  The two men were President Johnson and Richard Nixon.  These two men served as my baptism into politics and Nixon won.  At the time it just seemed that he made more sense then the President and the President had been widening the war for a long time.  My family was totally Democratic and so I held my own thoughts to myself until much later in my life, not wanting to be beat down by my very intelligent Grandfather and Father when it came to talking politics.

The next big event happened on April 4th of that year.  Summer was just around the corner and the Civil Rights Movement was coming to a crescendo.  Huge strides had been made but much was left to be done when the movement's leader, Martin Luther King, checked into a Memphis motel that day.  King was standing out on the balcony of the motel when gunshots rang out.  King was fatally wounded.  He was not the only civil rights leader to give his life in the quest for equality and the freedom of all Americans, but his was the most devastating.  I remember watching news reports that night as riots broke out across the country as anger at Dr. Kings assassination erupted.  Several cities, including Kansas City, were issued a curfew to try to get things under control.  The National Guard was dispatched to major cities to help with law enforcement.  It was a senseless killing that showed how far the country had yet to go in trying to change the mindset of so many people who did not like the agenda of the civil rights movement.  It was another eye opener for this eleven year old.

That year was an election year for the Presidency.  President Johnson had decided not to run for re-election and so both parties had primaries that were wide open for anyone to win.  As the primary season wound down, it began to become clear that Richard Nixon would be the Republican Nominee and Robert Kennedy would represent the Democrats.  Then Came the evening of June 5 in Los Angeles.  Kennedy had just won the California primary and clinched the nomination for President.  I was up watching television that night as he gave his speech at a hotel.  After his speech he was walking out the hotel through the kitchen.  I remember watching Cronkite after the speech and suddenly they switched to the kitchen area, where Kennedy was lying on the floor, on his back, with a pool of blood forming under his head.  He had be shot and would die within hours.  It was the second assassination during this year of turmoil.  It seemed the country was falling apart.

To further cement the impression that the country was on the edge of mass chaos, in August the Democrats met in Chicago for their convention, which the outcome had drastically changed since Kennedy's death.  The youth of America took to the streets of Chicago protesting the policies of President Johnson, which was seen as the policies of the entire Democratic Party.  Mayor Daley countered the youthful protesters with what seemed like the entire Chicago police force.  Every night for four days, the country was witnessing more chaos in the streets of Chicago then they were seeing what was going on inside the convention center.  While Miami hosted the Republicans that year who peacefully nominated Richard Nixon, the Democrats struggled between the riots outside the hall and the political fight inside the hall.  They came away nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey to take on Nixon in November.  It was looking to be a battle of political titans.

The election would be seriously effected when Governor George Wallace of Alabama decided to make a third party run at the White House.  Rarely do third parties effect an election much, but this was when the country was coming to terms with civil rights and one section of the country did not approve of Johnson's civil rights act.  That was the southern states.  These states were usually counted on by the Democrats but in 1968, Governor Wallace would siphon away those valuable states and give Richard Nixon the prize he was denied eight years earlier.  I sat up that election night and listened to Walter Cronkite tally up the votes as they came in from east coast to west coast.  It was early in the evening when it became apparent that Wallace was going to sweep the southeastern states.  At about midnight that night, Walter Cronkite finally said that Richard Nixon would be the next President of the United States.  It was the first time I had sat up for an election watch.  It was the first time I had witnessed a President being elected.  It is a memory I still carry with me.  Out of all the chaos of politics in 1968, the country survived and elected a president through the process set up by the Constitution and in January 1969 a peaceful transfer of power would take place as it always has in this country.  This is one of the major things that make this country so great.  We don't have coups, or revolutions, but rather we choose this transfer of power every four years and the country keeps going.  After watching the returns that November night, I had a new appreciation for our process and for the way our country worked.

The whole year of 1968 was wild and unpredictable.  Two major political assassinations, either one of which could have disrupted the country even holding elections had occurred.   Two very special men with very special agendas and promise were cut down in their prime and the country still suffers from those two events.

Now, I would be amiss if I didn't mention something else that was very special that happened in 1968.  On October 2, 1968 Bob Gibson took to the mound to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers.  These two teams had dominated their respective leagues all season long and it was surely going to be a great Series.  Bob Gibson did the unthinkable that sunny day in St. Louis as he struck out SEVENTEEN Tigers.  The Cardinals Beat the Tigers and Denny McClain, who had won 31 games that year, 4-0.  Fittingly, the Series would go the full seven games ending with the Detroit Tigers winning game 7 and the Championship in St. Louis.