After my few months of tutoring at Mount Vernon High School in the spring of ’65, two French teachers left and I was hired as a regular teacher for the next year. But the luckiest part of staying on at this school was how I got two new friends who were going to become just about the best friends I have ever had – Bella and Norma.
Bella had an extremely dramatic background, having been born in a work camp in Stalin’s USSR. Her extended family moved later to France, where she still today has some family. They lived in France for a long period and so Bella became a native French speaker. After many years in France her close family moved to New Jersey. They were still there when I knew Bella and I met her mother once when I spent a night with them during a language convention in the City. Bella doesn’t like to talk about where she was born and I don’t blame her. But I learned about it from her daughter Laura who was staying with us here in our Lyon suburb with her boyfriend Paul many years ago. (it was not the Gulag, Laura stressed when we were sitting at our breakfast table one morning some time in the 90s!) Laura and Paul later got married and the third generation is now growing up.
Norma was born in New York City, married to Ted. Her father had a second-hand bookstore down-town in Manhattan. I was once there with Norma and glancing at the shelves, I happened to find a Swedish book by an excellent contemporary writer and journalist, Jan-Olof Olsson, whose pen name was Jolo. The book was Chicago. In Swedish!
Jolo was a wonderful writer and historian. I had read a couple of books by him; 1914 about World War I of course, and Drottningens England (The Queen’s England). He was enormously productive and even though he died prematurely in 1974, at the age of 54, he had written a huge number of books – popular history, travel books and novels. His death caused a very genuine period of national mourning.
I honestly thought her father was going to either give me the book or offer it to me at a low price. There wasn’t much of a chance that another Swede was going to come across it. However, he didn’t do either. Maybe he was hard of hearing. He was sitting quietly at his desk, and I at the time was silly enough not to ask him how much it was. I guess I didn’t feel particularly interested in Chicago at the time. Stupid of me, since everything Jolo ever wrote was outstanding.
Norma had been a student at Hunter High School and then at Hunter College and had majored in Greek and Latin. I believe she got her Master’s at the age of 21. Her husband Ted was a chemist and well on his way to a Ph.D. I have rarely met a person I felt as close to as Norma. She was smart without any need to show off her knowledge or intellect, seemed to have no obnoxious prejudices, and made sound judgments exclusively on the basis of personal reflection. She saw holidays, the way they both did, as boring and unnecessary family gatherings. Once when the Rosh Hashanah holiday was coming up, she heard that Allan and I were planning on going hiking on the Appalachian Trail, which goes all the way from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south. Ted and Norma said “Oh could we come with you and get away from all the bother of the holiday.” In the New York area schools always took off for Jewish holidays too since in many cases over half of the faculty and students were Jewish.
So we all drove up to the hiking trail in the Catskills in New York State. We were first greeted by a horde of deer who were not the least bit shy of people. After we had spent some time admiring and talking to the deer, two people came down from the trail – stark naked. Norma turned away and chuckled. It turned out that the young man in his birthday suit was a former boyfriend of hers and she didn’t care to be recognized and talk to him in his present ‘outfit’. This would have been in 1966 and the flower-power movement was in full swing, even though the Woodstock festival was a few years off. ‘Make love, not war’ was going strong in 1966.
We slept in lean-tos on these hikes – three walls, a floor and a ceiling – and I’ll never forget on our very first over-night hike, just Allan and I that time, how I was shivering in the cold night air. I had been too stingy when I bought my new sleeping bag. Finally Allan and I had to switch our bags and his was a bit warmer so I got some sleep that night. For our next hike I had a warm down sleeping bag. Wonderful. We brought our food along of course, made a fire and heated up the baked beans and sausages or whatever we had in our backpacks.
It was not like when my family and I hiked in northern Lapland, in the forties, and we went on one-week or two-week treks around Sarek. For that, we had to pack light-weight, vacuum-packed food since we nevertheless had to carry 22 kilo backpacks at the outset. I remember when you took off the backpacks to sit down for a major break, it felt as if you were going to fall backwards. We would walk over 20 km a day, so a couple of good breaks were needed.
On one of Allan’s and my earliest hikes in New York State, there wasn’t even a lean-to and we closed up the food safely, or so we thought, in the backpacks and went to sleep on the forest floor. In the morning we had a big surprise. There was barely any food left. The leftovers of all we’d brought for our breakfast were strewn all around us. We thought we’d cleverly secured our food in the backpacks, but everything had been ravaged by raccoons who had had a feast on eggs, bacon, bread, milk and everything that could possibly be eaten from our packs. Allan was the old hand for this kind of adventure, or so I thought, but he clearly didn’t know that raccoon hesitate at nothing to get through to your food unless you store it in things as solid as metal containers. The raccoons won. We didn’t get much for breakfast that morning.
There were many memorable hikes in the Catskills if we didn’t care to drive far or, for more of a big undertaking, Mount Bromley or Mount Stratton in Vermont, where we also went skiing.
On one of our lean-to sleep-overs, I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a big hare who looked straight at me with his wonderful eyes. I wasn’t used to nights outdoors and to me it was a wonderful experience, seeing this gorgeous hare. Allan called him a jackrabbit, but it was a hare so I insisted on my way of naming this beautiful beast.
Once in a while we’d hear a loud noise in the middle of the night and Allan would say ‘It’s a deer knocking over the garbage can’. In the morning we could see the traces of it. But only once did I see the deer staring at me standing absolutely still, a beautiful spirit in the forest, lit by the almost full moon.
The most fun thing though that ever happened on one of these hikes was the night we slept with a porcupine in Vermont, probably on Mount Bromley. We don’t have porcupines in Sweden and I never expected to see one ever. To me they are totally exotic animals and I had no idea that they go all over the American continent. As we arrived and were about to take off our backpacks, I said, “Hey, there’s an animal in the corner.” It was a porcupine who was fast asleep clinging to the left corner of the lean-to. So we decided to put our sleeping bags down at the opposite end and just leave it alone. We had our light dinner and lay down to get some sleep, but it felt a bit weird knowing that there was an animal with long quills on his back that we were sharing the lean-to with. The hotel was fully booked that night. How was this funny beast going to behave during the night? In the middle of the night, however, I heard a tap tap tap on the wooden floor and in the morning he was gone.
Ted and Norma had a party in their apartment in the east 90s. They just had a window air conditioner and the living room was chock full of people rubbing shoulders and chatting with glasses in hand. All of a sudden the air conditioner gave up the ghost. It was just too much for a poor window apparatus like that. It was the hottest party I’ve ever been to, but it went on. We were all young and we did what my friend Christine, who moved to Cameroon with her very bourgeois World Bank tree-planting husband once said – we sweated, and that was that. This was my first initiation to the American kind of party where you strike up conversations with people you’ve never met before. Very un-Swedish. Also very un-French, unless you’re at an art exhibit opening event. I don’t think I’ll ever really get used to this kind of party though. I prefer to meet people I already know and like.
Ted and Norma later moved to Foster Avenue, a stone’s throw from Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and we would often get together to play bridge. But this was not the usual kind of bridge. It was very unserious. Ted had a scientific approach to the game, but he was the only one. Allan had played a lot of bridge since college days and he taught me. But his game was totally haphazard and I often just stared at him in amazement when he did his bidding. Along with the game we drank Aalborg, Danish snaps (spelled Schnapps in German) or aquavit, which was a thing serious bridge players would no doubt have frowned upon. But we had fun.
Later on they bought a house farther south in Brooklyn on Avenue T. Allan and I had separated, and it was now after my one-year stint in Paris. John had joined me in New Rochelle and we were at Ted’s and Norma’s house in ‘73. They now had two very young daughters and we had a good laugh at their parental methods. We grown-ups were watching something on television in the basement and when we got back upstairs late in the evening, we found the little girls glued to the basement door after they had banged on it and cried to be let through. Ted and Norma had totally ignored them and now they were happily asleep crumpled up on the floor and leaning on the door. As I remember, they fell over when we opened the door.
Back to Mount Vernon High School. The one outstanding memory from my first high school was a junior class where I taught French level 4. Usually, students got to level 4 in their senior year, but this was an experiment. This group had started French in middle school in grade 8 and were all more or less handpicked and certainly very highly motivated kids. The department head, Mrs Redka, told me she had given me the junior level 4 class and I couldn’t be more delighted.
And yes, they turned out to be the most memorable class I’ve ever had. I do believe I remember most of their names still today. Sometimes even their last names. Almost all were Jewish. Some stand out, Andy (André) and Marc, the charmer who would say ‘Check’ when I had explained something to him. Eleanor became Hélène and she said I couldn’t pronounce her name quite in the American way, so she wanted me to go on calling her Hélène. This was the only one time I did what many French teachers do – I gave them all French names. Of course Marc didn’t change. Eleanor’s close friend was Andrea so she had to remain Andrea (with the stress on the last a), since there was already one André (Andrée would be the feminine spelling.). There was Anna, Anne of course, one of the very few who was probably not Jewish. She was a bit timid, but I remember her well. They were all very good students.
And there was Paul Blank. Oh yes, there was Paul Blank. Unassuming, a bit timid even, but always ready with the right answer, sitting at the back of the class. He was a tall young man and he would probably not have stood out in a group of young kids, unless you knew him. One day when he must have realized that I liked music, he came up to me at the end of the class and asked me if I knew Aaron Copland. I said No. I had a lot to learn yet in terms of music that Arne hadn’t initiated me to or that I hadn’t come across on my own, such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”. Goodness, I barely knew Sibelius in those days. Paul Blank said “Oh, you must get to know him. He is absolutely wonderful”. I did get to know Copland and Allan in fact did know him already. Still today I like his music better than Leonard Bernstein’s, with the possible exception of West Side Story.
On another occasion Paul came up to me after a class and asked me if I knew the wonderful Matisse painting ‘The Egyptian curtain‘. I didn’t, but I did know Matisse, and I liked him a lot. That painting has now, 50 years later or so, been with me all my life. I had it on the wall in my study on rue Jean de Beauvais along with ‘Interior with black fern‘. My studio was in the 5ème arrondissement and that was the year I met John who lived in the 6ème, a good walk from my place which was close to Place Maubert.
‘The Egyptian curtain‘ is right now hanging on the wall between the two doors leading out to our verandah here in Genas, close to Lyon. It had to be taken down from the wall where it used to be because of the beautiful textile wall-hangings we have brought back from Rajasthan in India. ‘The Egyptian curtain‘ is now back to a place in the sun, literally and figuratively.
I didn’t know Paul was half Jewish until later when Bella told me. It didn’t make any difference to me. Norma knew him well too from her Latin classes. When we see each other today we still talk about Paul. I believe we had all emotionally adopted this brilliant young man.
A very Jewish mother gave us a good laugh though. She suggested to Norma that she get a little group of nice Jewish kids together to teach them Greek. I mainly remember the ‘little group of nice Jewish kids’. Norma heartily made fun of the mother.
Bella took over this class for their senior year, which was AP French (Advanced Placement), when I left for Mamaroneck High School, which was a far better school, especially since Mount Vernon was going downhill. She had a party for all of us, i.e. for this very special class, when she lived on the Upper West Side, in one of the classic brownstones. Allan and I were both there and we were now married. Eleanor Epstein kidded me about the change of my last name. She said “Here’s a Swedish teacher coming all the way from Europe to teach us French and her name is Mrs Thulin (they managed to pronounce it almost correctly). Then she gets married and she is just Mrs Phillips. Now, what kind of manners is that?” Funny and sweet Hélène. That’s when she told me she still wanted to be Hélène to me.
That year I had an accident, running downstairs from the balcony in the auditorium after an assembly. I fell on the stairs and knew I’d hurt myself, but I didn’t think much of it. Someone said I should at least go and see the nurse, which I did. She pushed my elbow into a bowl of ice cubes but it didn’t do anything for me. For some strange reason I didn’t have much pain. I went to my class, which was exactly this junior class and I went through the class, writing on the board with my left hand, I remember vividly.
Some colleagues said I should still get an x-ray at the hospital. I couldn’t drive myself so a colleague took me there. It turned out that I had a very complicated elbow fracture and during the operation the same day, the surgeon picked out innumerable little pieces of bone. I still don’t have the upper piece of my right radius, but it hasn’t changed anything in my mobility.
The best part of my stay in the hospital was a get-better card I received from my wonderful class. It was a couple of tree branches with 12 birds (actually one was a worm, but a pretty one) sitting close together on the branches. It was the exact number of students in my class. Next to each bird was the French name of one of the students, and their signatures were below. Marc had signed Chief. Typical for that likable clown. Paul Blank must have been sick that day, since his signature isn’t among them. I bet it was Hélène and Andrea who had found that wonderful card. It was absolutely adorable and I still have the card. I’ll keep it forever.
Since the accident happened in school during work hours, I saw the Workmen’s Compensation Board a year later, to establish if I had permanent damage. Maybe I should feel a bit ashamed of how this went, but I don’t really. During the summer of 1967, right after this accident, I was in the horse riding camp in New Hampshire with Allan and his sons. Allan could play tennis fairly well, enough to amuse himself. He was an all-around athlete. I tried to play against him once at the camp even though I was actually really nil in tennis or any ball game. I felt directly that I had no power at all in my right arm. I just couldn’t steer it. I could not even try to hit the ball. So when I talked to the MD at the Workmen’s Compensation Board, I told him that I couldn’t play tennis any more. A minor lie, since I’d really never been able to play it. Allan and I had played around a bit at the tennis court at Harbour House and I did own a racket. I had played badminton fairly well in Sweden, but my sister Gun always beat me. The doctor didn’t hesitate though. He thought it would be worth $1000 in damages for an accident at my work place. I wasn’t going to complain.
For that money and a bit more I bought myself a new car, a Volvo, the first of the new line of nice-looking models that came out around 1968. The salesman told me that for that money I could get a Pontiac. I said, “But I don’t want a Pontiac”. Partly thanks to Allan, I had gotten a much better paid job in his school, Mamaroneck (stress on the second syllable) High School, which also served Larchmont, the next-door town. I could also expect more motivated students, by and large. I did indeed have pretty good students in my new school, but I never again had a class like my junior French 4 class in Mount Vernon.
During the hiring procedure, the assistant superintendent told me he had talked to the people (as he put it) at Mount Vernon High School and they sounded as if they didn’t know how they were going to manage without me. I remember being interviewed by this gentleman (whose name was Schlick!) holding my arm in a cast. The man was indeed very ‘schlick’. I remember seeing him once at the soft drink stand at Jones Beach, far out on Long Island’s south shore. I hurriedly got behind Allan since I was only wearing a bikini. It’s a beautiful beach with dunes that I love and Jones Beach State Park, a bird and game sanctuary. It’s just a bit too huge for my European taste, with soft drink stands, snacks and all those very American commercial additions to a beach.
Mount Vernon was indeed going downhill. Upper-middle-class families were fleeing to towns with better schools and the entire town of Mount Vernon was beginning to seem more and more like an inner-city area. Except for my wonderful friends, Norma and Bella, Latin and French teachers, the standard of the teaching staff went down with the town of Mount Vernon in general. Greek was no longer taught from the year I left the school, and I seem to remember that even Latin had to go when Norma left a couple of years after me. In fact, from this time on, all languages began to take a secondary place even in the very good high schools all over the U.S. Even in the universities, the role of foreign languages was becoming less and less important as a requirement for science Ph.D. students. I remember how Ted, Norma’s husband, was fighting hard to learn German well enough to pass a translation test. Norma who had never studied German tutored her husband and he finally passed after a couple of failed attempts. A Latin teacher certainly knows what a language is and she could help Ted fairly easily with concepts like gender, case, irregular verbs and varying plurals of nouns.
So I now had a new school, Mamaroneck High School on Boston Post Road, the first road that went north to New England, so it is called U.S. Route 1. Once upon a time, it was The King’s Highway. This road of many past names that runs along Long Island Sound now became our daily route to and from the school where Allan and I were both teaching. Mamaroneck and Larchmont are predominantly upper class communities. Not quite as much as Scarsdale, but very close.
I was now faced with hyper-motivated parents who bit and scratched if their offspring didn’t get the grades they thought they deserved. I once had a run-in with a mother whose daughter had skipped grade 10 and gone straight into grade 11 and my level 3 French class. In fact, the bitch, the mother, went straight to Joe, our principal. It could have cost me my tenure, but Joe realized, with the help of one of the two women counselors, that the mother was not qualified to decide what grade her daughter should be getting and that I was actually right in my judgment of her level. He gave me a report the following year that was so full of praise that I almost felt embarrassed. I got my tenure.
One evening in November 1969 Allan and I were sitting around after dinner talking about a Vietnam War moratorium that was going to take place in Washington D.C. that very weekend, November 15. I suddenly said “Why don’t we go?”
Allan had a former colleague, who was the drama teacher before Regina, the one at my time. This very nice young woman, Cathy, now lived in D.C. with her husband who was an MD at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I knew Cathy somewhat too since she had been substituting before she got married and moved to Washington D.C. Allan called her up that very evening and she said immediately “Do come! You must.”
Even the drive down to D.C. was an experience. Anywhere you stopped for a cup of coffee or a snack there seemed to be nothing but people headed for the moratorium. The ambiance was something we’d never seen on a U.S. expressway or anywhere in the States, people hugging each other from the sheer pleasure of meeting people who thought the way they did.
The day began on a cold November morning with thousands and thousands of people gathered in a throng on the National Mall. Woolen hats, gloves and woolen scarves were seen all around us. We were supposed to assemble at the Washington Monument, but we were packed so tightly that nobody could move at all. We had been expressly told to stick to the Mall so the mass of us would be clearly visible. In other words we should not go over onto Pennsylvania Avenue. At some point though everybody realized that there was no way we could move at all towards the Washington Monument. Masses of people went over to Philadelphia Avenue and finally we managed to move. There were Cathy, Allan and I and some other friends and we were all freezing. We got a fairly good spot where we could see the singers and speakers up on the tribune very well in the center of the Mall. There were good loudspeakers and we heard quite well.
Some of the time we were sitting down on the grass, but especially moving were of course the moments when we were standing up, everybody holding hands and singing along with Pete Seeger: “That’s all we are saying, let’s give peace a chance”. It was profoundly moving and we actually could barely believe that we almost missed an opportunity like this. Afterwards we found out that Ted and Norma had been there too as well as some other people we knew.
I don’t remember all the speakers, but there was oh so sadly lackluster George McGovern and the definitely not lackluster Bella Abzug, the outspoken feminist and anti-war activist from New York City who later became a U.S. congresswoman. 1 I remember the singers more vividly and Pete Seeger was of course, as always, the most inspiring since he made everybody sing along. He actually also made his appearance at a mini-demonstration and candle wake we held in Mamaroneck a bit later on that winter. We couldn’t thank him enough for that. Here there was the fabulous trio ‘Peter, Paul and Mary’ (also in Mamaroneck in fact – amazing) and Joan Baez, all of them wonderful. You might see this as mass hysteria and I guess that’s not really incorrect, but there are different kinds of hysteria. We were just so intensely happy to find all these soul brothers, the thousands and thousands who had come to D.C. just to express our hatred of war in general and the Vietnam War in particular. There were people of all ages and we were all freezing. However, we kept singing and listening, standing up most of the time, but sometimes sitting down on the cold grass.
The mass media said afterwards that there were 20,000 people, but WBAI, ‘our’ listener sponsored radio station (Radio Pacifica) that Allan and I listened to every day, said it was completely false and that there were certainly over 100,000 demonstrators in DC that day. I see today on the Internet that there were half a million protesters in Washington D.C. that day. — 20,000!!! So much for the mass media. 2
In those days I was in love with all the various peace singers. My absolute favorite as a poet and a singer is and was Bob Dylan, but I suppose he should be considered in a class by himself. However, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is a clear anti-war song:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
I love it and so did the kids at my first summer camp, Camp Winamac in New Hampshire. Young people in that day went wild about the song and you heard it everywhere. You couldn’t tune it out. Another song that really made it that year was ‘Puff — the Magic Dragon’, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary and written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton. I believe most kids sang it innocently not really knowing that it was all about pot and drugs.
Pete Seeger was of course the number one peace singer, known to everybody, it seems to me. He also has a voice that is far better than Bob Dylan who doesn’t have much of a voice in fact. And yet I love him. There is the great Tom Paxton. His so simple and effective words in ‘What Did You Learn in School Today?’ really sum up what is and was wrong with the United States government and policies.
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie.
I learned that soldiers seldom die.
I learned that everybody’s free.
And that’s what the teacher said to me.
That’s what I learned in school today.
That’s what I learned in school.
Also by Tom Paxton is the over all other wonderful anti-war songs the one that touches on Germany and Germans “We Didn’t Know”.
We didn’t know said the burgermeister
About those camps on the edge of town
It was Hitler and his crew tore the German Nation down
We saw the cattle cars it’s true
And maybe they carried a Jew or two
They woke us up as they rattled through
What did you expect me to do?
We didn’t know it all
We didn’t see a thing
You can’t hold us to blame
What could we do?
It was a terrible shame
But we can’t bear the blame
Oh no, not us, we didn’t know.
Other favorites of mine were Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Joan Baez may not have had as good a voice as Judy Collins, but she could certainly arouse a crowd. And there was, of course, the wonderful trio Peter, Paul and Mary, whom we were even very lucky to hear in Mamaroneck at our candle vigil, some time very soon after the Moratorium in November ’69 in Washingon D.C.
Phil Ochs ended up very sadly, committing suicide at the age of 35. He left us with lots of beautiful songs however and we will never forget him and his cowboy way of singing.
“I ain’t Marching Any More” is one of his most moving songs.
“Call it peace or call it treason / call it love or call it reason / but I ain’t marching anymore”
Those were words we were dying to hear and that could rouse any peace-loving crowd in the Vietnam war years.
Peter, Paul and Mary sang ‘Blowing in the Wind’, ‘This Land is Your Land,’ but, above all they sang ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’
In the fourth stanza they have gone from flowers to young girls, to young men and to soldiers – (and later to graveyards).
And where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, a long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, every one!
When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?
But the most fascinating singer of this song was certainly Marlene Dietrich. The song was superbly translated into German — ‘Sag mir wo die Blumen sind’. Marlene keeps changing the key constantly, which you may or may not like. It’s a bit artificial, but Marlene Dietrich is a phenomenon; her sexy looks and her equally sexy voice. She also sang ‘Blowing in the wind’ — in English with just a slight German accent and with an accordion as accompaniment.3
Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind,
wo sind sie geblieben?
Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind,
was ist geschehn?
Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind,
Mädchen pflückten sie geschwind.
Wann wird man je verstehn,
wann wird man je verstehn? 4
Marlene Dietrich has always fascinated me, ever since my very young years. I remember in Luxeuil I once mentioned to Gaëtane how good she looked. Gaëtane said “Oui, elle est bien conservée.” I learned a new word. Marlene (the final e pronounced as rhyming with ‘the’ in ”the woman’) was in fact past 50 at the time, older than both my parents. I had seen her in ‘The Blue Angel’ and I loved her. This eternally young and slim woman with the enthralling alto voice fascinated the entire Western world. John actually saw her on the stage in New York City in the late sixties, but I never did. She became a U.S. citizen in ’39 and “throughout World War II she was a high-profile front-line entertainer”.
I remember her singing ‘Lili Marleen’, the ‘ear-hanger’ (as we said in Swedish; ‘örhänge’) during the entire war. We usually spent our summer vacations during the war at my grandparents’ place. One sunny day when I was drying dishes in the big kitchen, Grandpa heard me sing it. He came out and said with a happy smile that he loved to hear me sing ‘Lili Marleen’. It was his favorite song. Mine too, at the time. Everybody loved it. The song 5 was actually written during World War I, but was picked up again during the second World War.
steht eine Laterne und steht sie nach davor
da wollen wir uns wiedersehen
bei der Laterne wollen wir stehen
wie einst Lili Marleen
wie einst Lili Marleen
The summers were always a problem for me since Allan always wanted to go to a summer camp with his sons. I taught summer school my first summer, but that was far too much work. In 1966 I got a job as a chaperone with Simmons Travel Tours for a group of young girls, which was a mixture of fun and annoyance since the British agency which had organized the trip had made several quite serious mistakes. So in 1967 I decided I would go to camp with Allan.
In this camp in New Hampshire, Camp Winamac, I was Allan’s assistant on the water front, teaching the youngest girls to swim, as young as four in fact. (Horrible to think that parents could leave their 4-year-olds for an entire summer to people they didn’t even knew!) We started by getting them to blow bubbles underwater, then dog paddle and so on. They had to do a simple little dive to get their very first certificate, and I remember one chubby little girl who took forever to dare fall into the water head first, which was all that was needed. She did manage finally and she got her certificate. I sometimes took a few of the little kids out in a small wooden sailboat, but it wasn’t really sailing. This was a horseback riding camp essentially.
I was also a counselor, meaning I had to take care of a cabin of 12-year-old girls. Usually counselors are young girls and I didn’t appreciate this part of my job at all. The main thing I remember from the nights in this cabin was the sound of the clawed feet of lively chipmunks on the roof. I liked that.
The site of the camp was gorgeous. New Hampshire is a mountainous state with lots of lakes and forests, quite similar to Maine in fact. During the summer at Camp Winamac, which was not too far from Manchester, we once managed to get a day off when the weather was really good. We tied our funny yellow canoe with the red sail onto the roof of Allan’s car and headed for Lake Winnipesaukee up north in the center of New Hampshire.
We put up the aluminum mast and hoisted the one sail there was with this toy sailboat. It wasn’t so little but it was very awkward as a sailboat. However, even though heavy and clumsy, it took us places and this time we set out for an island in this incredibly clean lake. We could see the bottom of the lake all the time and it was a marvel. Once at the island we put on our snorkel and mask gear and went swimming around looking at fish and whatever there was to see under us in the crystal clear water. This was in 1967. I hope the water is as clean today as it was then.
The funny canoe even served for a bit of sailing on Long Island Sound, but especially it served very well for going down the rapids in the Delaware River from Hancock, New York, south to Port Jervis. This is where the Delaware River is the border between Pennsylvania and New York State. Those rapids are perfect as soon as there is enough water in the river and Allan was a master navigator, good at finding the best places to shoot between the rocks sticking out of the water. We went through Skinners Falls, probably the best stretch of rapids, and it was lots of fun. I soon learned how to handle a canoe and I even taught canoeing later on in our second summer camp. Doing a ‘Figure 8’ stroke when you are alone in the canoe, from starboard stern of course, is not a big deal, and that’s how you manage easily to keep the canoe on a straight course with just one paddle. I have always liked boats of all kinds and a canoe was a new and fun thing to me.
We were probably a bit unconventional as rapids-shooters, since we once in a while left the canoe under a bridge somewhere next to a town and walked up the riverside to find a bar to have a Tom Collins. We hit on a nice bar in Pennsylvania once where I learned something interesting. They had all sorts of old wood signs and wall decorations with texts in somewhat old-fashioned German and talking with the owner I learned that the Pennsylvania Dutch are not Dutch at all, but deutsch. When they first came into the country, there had been a misunderstanding of the word deutsch. In fact when the word Dutch came into the English language there was already a misunderstanding.
Our next camp, in 1968, much better organized, was in Massachusetts, west of New London. No question of making me a counselor here. We, the instructors, had a house to ourselves with ‘happy hour’ every afternoon around five, all of us usually in the same couple’s room. And every morning we were awakened to reveille and the head counselor’s hearty cry of ‘Rise and shine’. I have hated the saying ever since then. As well as the term ‘happy hour’. Is that the only time you can be happy?
Here we had a good-sized lake and I was the sailing instructor. I also taught canoeing once in a while since the certificate a few of the girls got was for boating, not just sailing. I had a couple of groups of the older girls (girls’ waterfront and boys’ waterfront in this well organized camp of course!) who actually learned quite a bit about sailing and knots and got their boating certificate, signed by Ira, the very stuck-up young instructor on the boys’ side, since I didn’t have the Red Cross sailing instructor’s diploma that was needed to sign those certificates.
We used only sailfish and sunfish, light one-sail boats where you just sit on top of the hull, or with your feet in a little well, the way you do in the slightly bigger sunfish. It proved to be pretty much impossible though to teach the younger girls even the most basic principles of what made the boat move by the wind. They just wanted to go out on the lake to capsize and have fun. It was okay with me. I was wearing a very thin cotton shirt over my bathing suit to keep the sun from burning my light skin, but it dried in no time. So we capsized, since that’s what they all wanted to do, two or three little girls at a time. I swam around the boat, put my whole weight on the dagger board, which is the term for the keel on those little boats, and straightened up the boat as the water emptied out of the sail. And off we went again. I didn’t quite give up on teaching even the little girls though. I had explained everything to them about the wind and the sail and one day when I asked “Okay, so where is the wind coming from right now?” they pointed to the bow. All right, I guess I gave up. They had fun capsizing and that was it for the little girls. Of course all of them except me were always wearing life jackets.
In the Massachusetts camp we had a serious head counselor who was a bit miserly with days off. When Allan and I said “We can take off today, right? It looks all cloudy.” he would always say “Wait a bit. It’ll burn off.” So we waited. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t burn off.
One time we were lucky here too for our day off. The head counselor said Okay, and we took the road for New London – without our canoe. In the harbor we rented a sailboat and set out for Block Island, which is east of the eastern tip of Long Island. It was a boat about the size of my future Kijé, so about 19 feet long. The weather was perfect and we sailed the whole morning, arriving at Block Island some time after lunch. We saw the narrow entrance to the lagoon, Great Salt Pond, but we just turned around and went back. We returned to the New London harbor in good time before dark. It had been a nice day even though a bit uncomfortable for the one who was not at the tiller. There were no real seats in this little boat, but it did what we wanted it to do. It took us back and forth and we had fun. The wind was a bit less than we could have wished for, but it would do. There were occasional bursts of a good breeze, and we kept moving.
That fall I bought my dear Rhodes 19, which I baptized Kijé (since Petrushka was too long to paint on the stern of the boat). There was an R 19 written up at the top of the sail. I was finally the skipper. Well, sometimes. The marina in New Rochelle was a few hundred meters from Harbour House, so we packed our lunch, got the drinks, mostly lemonade, and walked down to our boat, which was actually my boat. We used our canoe as a dingy, a bit awkward but it worked. When I painted the name Kijé in black letters on the stern of my boat I was kneeling in the canoe. I had cut out the letters, including the accent, in fairly stiff paper and I was very pleased with myself when I saw the result. No smear at all.
We very often went out sailing on Long Island Sound on weekends and the only one annoying thing was the yachts, which you really do get to hate if you’re a sailor. The owner sits up high on the bridge with his captain’s hat in full view, feeling like the king of the world. Those motor boats are supposed to slow down for sailboats so as not to bother us with their high wake. But they never do. They shoot past us at full throttle and don’t think twice about other people’s comfort. We often sailed towards Long Island, to approximately the spot where Great Gatsby took place, which is in real life Great Neck and Little Neck. We used to call it sailing towards Great Gatsby.
One sunny Sunday a 12-meter boat was practicing in the Sound and we thought it would be fun to see if we could keep up with it. We did pretty well, sailing as close to the big boat as we could without having him take our wind. It was just fun, but of course nobody on Big Brother had noticed that a little Rhodes 19 was racing them.
I remember how when you looked down towards Throgs Neck Bridge, New York City usually appeared in a poisonous yellow haze. We seemed to have such clear air all around us, but most likely it wasn’t as clean as it seemed to us.
Ted and Norma came out sailing with us one Sunday and so did other friends once in a while. In fact, as I remember now, it seems as if Allan and I had already split up when Ted and Norma came out on Kijé with me.
The most memorable sailing we ever did on Kijé was a Tuesday afternoon in November. It was Election Day, so the first Tuesday of November in 1968, the disastrous day when Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States. We, like so many others, at least state and community employees, were off that afternoons so we could vote. At that time, we thought that Nixon was just about as bad as politicians could get. Since then we have learned otherwise. There is no limit.
The sky was grey and there was a very good breeze. We had our foul weather gear on, hoods up. We sailed towards Long Island as we often did and the salty spray of the waves hit our faces. Kijé was heeling and the water was coming in over the gunwale. That was sailing. I just loved to feel the salty water on my face.
It was a bit sad to give up sailing a few years later when John and I moved to Paris, but there are lots of good things in life that don’t depend on a boat and a vast body of water. I tried to keep up skiing, but after an accident in 1981, I gave up on that too. Later on, many years of hiking in the Austrian Alps was going to more than make up for giving up on sailing and skiing.
- When Richard Nixon was reelected in 1972, I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. I had taken it for absolutely granted that he would lose to McGovern. But I was naïve. ↩
- Nov. 15, 1969, Anti-Vietnam War Demonstration Held ↩
- ‘Blowing in the wind’ Youtube ↩
- Complete lyrics in German — Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind, ↩
- Lili Marleen in German, sung by Marlene Dietrich. This is my favorite version. Her singing is perfect and I also prefer the accompaniment. ↩