Sixty years ago this month, June 2012, my wife Jean; Tomie De Paola, Jean’s playmate as she grew up at 210 Highland Avenue in Meriden, Connecticut, and I graduated from Meriden High School which, alas, has not existed for decades. Tomie lived around the corner from Jean, at 26 Fairmount Avenue, the title of one of his “chapter books,” for of course he matured to become the famous children’s writer and illustrator, winner of the Caldecott, Newbery, and Laura Ingalls Wilder Awards.
At the end of October 2007 Jean and I drove in pouring rain from our retirement home in Dresden Mills, Maine, to Newport, New Hampshire, to see Tomie receive the Sarah Josepha Hale Award at the Newport Opera House. Jean was reluctant to go because she said she wouldn’t know anyone, but I told her she’d be a celebrity, and everyone there did know her, as “Jeannie” from Tomie’s chapter books about Meriden. Here is a photo of Jean and Tomie at that celebration:
And here are all three of us, plus John Berry (second from the left):
I was the other writer in our class and, in fact, the person who first published Tomie’s work because I was co-editor of the Meriden High School Annual for 1952 for which Tomie was Art Editor. He and I are both members of the Meriden Hall of Fame, as are three more of our classmates including Bill Greiner, our late Class President and for many years President of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Here are two of Tomie’s images from The Annual 1952:
Our classmate Ray Staszewski, with whom I joined the U. S. Navy a month later, was co-author of the Class of ’52 poem, which also appeared in The Annual, and I wrote three others for subsequent reunions:
For the Meriden High School Class of 1952
With Ray Staszewski, 1952
The morning years of life, for us, are through.
We leave a training ground of mind — this school.
Our thoughts, diversified ahead, behind,
Find us more than a bit perplexed with life.
In retrospect, our memories are sweet,
Like morning sunbeams spread on dampened earth
Or sparkle of a dew-dropped, dawning day.
Our free, young past we’ll cherish close to us:
A bulky mass of mixed-up incidents
to be relived in later dreams of youth.
But ah, how swiftly change the tunes of life!
Our present soon becomes the passive past;
The future, perfect....
Yet, in all our hopes
There runs a thread of fear, for through the haze
Of college, working, fighting on the road
That lies before us all, a question mark
Rears up its hoary head and asks, “But what
Of Age, of Death’s cold, bony hand, whose slave
Is Time, with sickle cutting ever widening swaths
Through youth, which cannot mend itself again?
But still we look with firm, convincing thought
Into the foggy future that is ours
Which holds some love, yet hate; some joy, but pain.
We therefore look to Fate and humbly say,
“Our lives are yours, harsh world. Please use them well.”
A SONG OF TIME'S PASSAGE
A world of cold water's flowed over the dam,
And the dam looks mossy, damn mossy, my friend.
Chill winters have weathered her, and warm springs
Have leaked through the sluice where the bullfrog sings
The peeper's green song that never shall end
Down by the dam, friend. Dam your eyes —
Never say "was," say "will be" and "am."
That person's a fool who blubbers and sighs.
The millwheel races to beat the clock;
The chime strikes out — it takes its toll
As time consumes the current hour
Like a pickerel striking to devour
The minnows of minutes, to take them whole
Down by the dam, friend. Dam your eyes —
Don't fish on a sandbank; cast from a rock!
No mossback takes good anglers by surprise.
Our summers have bobbed on the crests of our falls;
The millrace runs, the pond grows shallow.
Reeds bristle like beards where otters go deep,
Where old newts burrow and turtles sleep.
The willow withers, the lilly, the mallow
Down by the dam, friend; dam your eyes —
It's only a puddle. If ageing palls,
Go spout in the ocean. That never dries.
Remember the streets of Meriden
When we were young and running free?
The blinking, whistling traffic tower
At West Main Street and Colony?
The railroad trains that rattled through
And tied up traffic for an hour?
Where are the sights and scenes we knew?
Remember the sounds of Meriden —
The old rag man with his horse and wagon?
On alternate days did the same man vend
Home-grown produce, his nag’s back sagging?
“Water me-loan” was the cry he threw
Among the houses come sun or shower.
Where are the ice men that we knew?
The High School was on Pleasant then,
Just up from Curtis Library.
On East Peak was the old stone tower
We climbed to survey every tree
That grew in Hubbard Park below
Where we saw fountain, duck and flower —
Where are the greengrass days we knew?
We called it “The Silver City” when
It nestled among “The Hanging Hills.”
Now all the silver’s in our hair,
If we still have some, and the thrills
Of being young must be felt through
Our grandchildren who still are there
In the far fair land that once we knew.
A SEMI-CENTENNIAL TOAST
For the 50th Anniversary Reunion
of the Meriden High School Class of 1952.
Well, here we are together once again;
Yes, here we all are gathered once again
After two-score years, plus another ten.
A half a century has slid on by --
A full half-century has skidded by,
And we’re all standing here considering why
And how five decades have managed to disappear...,
Just how five decades have managed to disappear
Year by year by year by year by year.
The school we once attended also has gone.
Old Meriden High for a long time has been gone,
Sunken beneath many a night and dawn,
And many a friend and classmate will be missed
As we tell one another how we’ve missed
Each other and those missing from our list.
But look, each one of us is a survivor;
Each person here we know is a survivor
Who’s somehow managed the feat of staying alive, or
Mostly alive at any rate. A toast,
Then, to our class! A brave survivor’s toast
To the Class of Fifty-two -- we’re still a host!
Here is a photo of Tomie and me at our fiftieth class reunion in 2002:
Jean and I are planning to attend the sixtieth reunion on Saturday, August 25, 2012, a couple of months hence. We’re hoping to see Tomie again and many of our classmates. We’re not exactly a host anymore, but quite a fair number of us have survived into our 78th year. I'm not planning to write another poem for the class this year, but perhaps this one, from my collection titled The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems by “Wesli Court,” will do:
YEAR BY YEAR
Listen to Lewis Turco (a.k.a. Wesli Court) read his poem Year by Year
When we are born we have no clue
Why we are here, what we should do,
Therefore we flail about and yell
Till we are changed or held and fed,
And then at last, when all is well,
We take the world into our head,
Into our hands, until our fear
Begins to wane and disappear.
We enter school and learn to read
And how to cope with every need
That rises out of books and play.
We learn to cope with those around us
With whom we interact each day,
With all the people who surround us.
As we grow older year by year
Our playmates start to disappear.
Then we enter adolescence
To discover that the essence
Of existence seems hormonal:
We must learn to deal with excess
Of enticements pheremonal,
With the battle of the sexes.
As we grow older year by year
Our girl and boy friends disappear.
When finally we come of age
We take our place upon the stage
Of life and do what adults do:
Choose a career and graduate,
Settle on a friend or two,
Begin to think about a mate.
So we mature a bit each year,
And see our lovers disappear.
We settle down and get a house
Or an apartment with a spouse
Or live-in. Then the kids arrive
To take our energy and time —
No matter what, they seem to thrive.
We do as well, we’re in our prime
Until there comes that primal year
When all our children disappear.
The two of us are left alone
And then, perhaps, there’s only one
Because what else is there to do
Except look back and try to find
The future that we barely knew
Before it started to unwind
And we grew older, year by year,
Watching our elders disappear?
Now here we are. The moon turns blue
No longer and the days are few
When we have anything of note
To celebrate or fill our minds.
We have no projects to promote
Or interests of different kinds,
For we’ve grown older year by year
And seen our lifetime disappear.