Remembering Biff

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I left the town where I grew up several decades ago.  But last week I visited my mom, who lives in a retirement village there, and I decided to have an early Sunday morning jog through one of our old neighborhoods.  If you’ve ever re-visited a place from your childhood after a long absence, especially if little has changed, you know what a strange and exhilarating experience it can be.  Memories trickle in like dappled sunlight: the park where my dad taught me how to ice skate; the hill where my bike skidded on gravel and sent me tumbling to the pavement.  And you wonder if the houses might contain familiar faces.

As I approached our old house, I passed by a well-kept, single-level, yellow house with two front doors.  This was where Biff Schlossman had lived.  Biff was one of my childhood friends.  He was the only kid who was in all my classes from kindergarten through 4th grade (when we moved out of the neighborhood).  He was also in my Cub Scout den, and I’m sure we exchanged a couple birthday parties.  Physically, he was very striking, with brown skin and hair as black as night.

I’d passed by Biff’s house maybe a half-dozen times since we moved away in the late ‘60s, with only a glancing thought about him.  This time – with the tang of March chill on my skin, fresh air in my lungs, and a sudden feeling of nostalgia – I whispered to myself “I wonder whatever happened to old Biff.”  He was pretty bright, so I figured he’d joined the professional ranks as a doctor, lawyer, or successful businessman.  Thanks to the miracle of cyberspace (and to Biff’s unique name), I made a mental note to find out.

When I later plugged his name in the search engine, I discovered a few things.  One was that a very successful novelist had borrowed Biff’s name for the main character in one of his books.  We both knew Biff from grammar school, but neither of us knew the other (yes, it’s a small world).

The other thing I learned was that Biff wasn’t a surgeon, defense attorney, or bank president.  In fact, he’d apparently shunned the standard American Dream to pursue his own dream.  He’d become a classic back-to-nature hippie troubadour.  He’d moved to the mountains of Montana to ski, hike, and sing and play guitar in local bars and ski lodges.  And in the process he made a lot of friends, and became sort of a local legend.  It didn’t surprise me.  My biggest memories of Biff (besides his Indian looks) are his sparkling eyes, impish smile, and soft-spoken manner.

Sadly, I also learned that Biff died unexpectedly at a young age.  Looking into the past can have its sorrows.

I wish I’d have hooked up with Biff long ago.  I think we would have clicked even beyond childhood, as we shared a certain idealism and a lot of the same interests.  Sometime during our raucous post-pubescent years, we separately kindled a passionate appreciation of music.  And after college, I made my own trip out West, to backpack in the Cascades, and I drove right past where Biff may have been strumming guitar.  If I’d have turned left at Bozeman – the “road not taken” – who knows?  I didn’t have his musical talent or performing confidence.  But if not pulling up a stool with him onstage, maybe I could’ve tuned his guitar or offered a lyric or two.

Two memories stand out about Biff.  Both of them coincide with pivotal moments as I grew up.  If Biff were around now, I’d share both memories with him.  The first occurred in kindergarten.  Biff was Jewish, and I remember him talking about his faith during Show-and-Tell.  He brought in matzo crackers to share with the class.  Even though they were unsalted and unlike our regular diet of sugared cookies, we all liked them.  More importantly, Biff’s presentation was my first awareness that people could have differences beyond the physical.  And that this was a good thing.  It’s a lesson I’ve had to relearn time and again.

The other memory was when we were nine and attended summer camp together.  Our moms signed us up to go as buddies and cabin bunkmates for two one-week stints.  It was the first time either of us had been away from home for longer than a night.  I was pretty homesick, but Biff, being more outgoing and adventurous, made friends with another kid in our cabin.  This kid (I’ll call him Eddie) was maybe a year older, from the rougher side of town, and he had a swagger.  I didn’t like Eddie, but he liked Biff, and they kind of teamed up.  Of course, my homesickness was even worse after this.  But I distinctly remember Biff approaching me later in the week and saying “Pete, I don’t think Eddie likes me anymore, he hasn’t talked to me in a while.”  Maybe it’s rose-colored glasses.  But this may have been his way of trying to make me feel better.

I didn’t return for that second week of camp.  I was just too homesick.  In hindsight, I wish I’d have forced myself, because my copout probably started a pattern of avoidance.   But Biff did return.  I’ve always wondered how he fared.  Our family moved only a few months later, so I never found out.  For all I know, those wooded hills of north-central Ohio helped inspire Biff’s later migration to Big Sky country.

I never saw Biff again, either.  But friends from youth have a way of searing themselves into your consciousness.  Maybe because, when we’re kids, we’re not aware of the concept of time.  When we’re kids, neither the past nor the future are relevant.  We haven’t yet learned how to reflect on things, good or bad.  And we don’t worry about what’s in front of us.  We only live in the present.  For most of us, it’s just a brief period in our lives.  But it’s where you can find true happiness.

Here’s to you, Biff.

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Steve Allen to Jerry Springer

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Dysfunctional excess

Is all it took for my success.

(Peter Gabriel, from his song “The Barry Williams Show”)

Last week Jerry Springer made a return visit to Cincinnati for a question and answer forum.  Before hosting a nationally syndicated “trash” talk show, Springer was a TV anchorman/commentator in Cincinnati, and before that, he was mayor (until he was caught writing a check to a prostitute).  I guess there’s a segment of society that’s attracted to “dysfunctional excess.”  One of the folks at work went to the forum and referred to Springer as being “smart” (how smart can you be if you pay off a prostitute with a personal check?!).  It got me to thinking about another smart guy who was a talk show host: Steve Allen.

For those who may not know, Steve Allen was the very first host of “The Tonight Show,” long before Jay Leno, and even before Johnny Carson.  He was largely responsible for developing the format of the TV talk show.  He didn’t look it, but he was actually pretty hip, being one of the first to book a young Elvis Presley, and helping to promote writer Jack Kerouac, author of the beat-generation bible “On the Road.”  And a teenaged Frank Zappa appeared on Allen’s show, playing an upside-down bicycle as a musical instrument!  In addition, Allen was an accomplished jazz musician and song composer, a talented comic, and he wrote a staggering 50 books during his lifetime.

Toward the end of his life (he died in 2000 at age 78), Allen became increasingly concerned about the amount of gratuitous sex, violence, crudity, and stupidity that the entertainment media was dishing out.  His last book was called “Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio: Raising Standards of Popular Culture.”  In the book he castigates TV producers, personalities like Springer and shock-jock Howard Stern, the film industry, and the music and video gaming industries for helping to facilitate a breakdown of mores in society through their product.   In my opinion, his voice carries weight.  Allen was there at the very beginning of TV, and he witnessed a number of changes over a 50-year period.  That combined with the fact that Allen was a voracious reader and researcher and he was constantly trying to improve himself.

Politically, Allen was a Democrat.  And as far as religion, he considered himself a secular humanist (he wrote several books that critiqued the Bible, but only after doing a lot of research on Christianity).  He didn’t believe in censorship.  But he did feel that Hollywood and the entertainment industry needed to do a much better job of policing themselves, and citizens needed to become more engaged and speak out against the crassness.  Parents are the best police for their kids, but they’re powerless once the kids leave the house. Allen felt so strongly about these things that at the end he was taking out ads in city newspapers and he became honorary chairman, with actress Shirley Jones (Mrs. Partridge!!!), of the conservative Parents Television Council.  The group is still active today, though unfortunately few of the board members have the acuity or worldliness of Allen.  Most recently, it started a petition to ban Seth McFarlane from ever hosting the Academy Awards again.

In another post on longitudes, I rebuked the NRA and gun lobby for their incomprehensible use of the Second Amendment to bludgeon attempts at sensible gun legislation.  But I also pointed a finger at the entertainment industry for shoveling out whatever garbage they could get away with under the First Amendment.  Until Second Amendment conservatives and First Amendment liberals stop blaming each other for gun violence, and decide that the problem is multifold, I’m afraid our society will continue its ineluctable slide into the muck of violence and vulgarity.  And we need more Steve Allens to hold accountable the Jerry Springers.

USS Monitor Sailors Buried at Arlington

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On Friday two sailors who went down with the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor 150 years ago were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.  The sailors’ skeletons were found inside the vessel’s turret, which was discovered on the floor of the Atlantic in 1973 and was raised in 2002.  Descendants of those sailors who perished in the sinking attended the burial.

The Monitor is perhaps the most famous vessel of the Civil War.  A Swedish-born inventor, John Ericsson, designed it just after the war broke out in 1861.  The U.S. government wanted a steam vessel made of iron that could compete with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (known as the wooden frigate USS Merrimack before the war).  The most distinguishing feature of the Monitor, aside from its iron hull, was the revolving gun turret.  This allowed the ship to fire its guns in any direction, regardless of its position.  The turret was frequently referred to as a giant “cheesebox” due to its odd cylindrical shape and eight-layered, bolted plates.  It mounted two 15-inch Dahlgren guns, each weighing 16,000 pounds (7,300 kilograms).

On March 9, 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Monitor clashed with her nemesis the Virginia in the most famous naval conflict in U.S. history.  It was the first-ever engagement between two steam-powered iron ships and it ushered in a new era of naval warfare.  The battle itself was a draw, although the Monitor was successful in defending the federal stronghold at Hampton Roads.  She later participated in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on the James River.

In December 1862 the Monitor was being towed to Beaufort, North Carolina by the USS Rhode Island in preparation to an attack on Wilmington, NC.  On the 30th a gale struck about 16 nautical miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras.  Sixteen of the 62-member crew drowned during the vessel’s sinking, including the two unidentified sailors in the turret. (Note: a rescue party of the Rhode Island later found shelter onboard the supply hulk USS William Badger…please click the “Blubber Book” tab for info regarding my biography of the Badger).  

The identity of the two sailors is as yet unknown.  Forensic evidence reveals that both were Caucasians, about 5-foot-7-inches tall, with one sailor in his late teens or early 20s and the other in his 30s.  DNA tests of the remains are ongoing.

Acclaimed Civil War historian James McPherson believes that Union sailors deserve to be honored as much as the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg.  Most were volunteers, and those who served on ironclads knew that, unlike wooden ships, their vessels would immediately sink once enough water broke through the hulls.  They knew that such a vessel could be “a coffin for the crew.”