ALFRED EISENSTADT, PHOTOGRAPHY, AND ME TOO

Garry and I used to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, sharing a house with a bunch of other people from Boston TV stations.

Alfred EisenstadtIn the early 1990s, Garry did a feature about Alfred Eisenstadt and Lois Maillou Jones, both of whom lived on the Vineyard and had been given Presidential Medals of Honor for their work. We became friends with both artists. Eisenstadt was in his early 90s, Lois Maillou Jones in her mid 80s.

I had been an admirer of Eisenstadt’s work as long as I’d been taking pictures. I shot my first roll of film on Martha’s Vineyard in 1966. I had stayed at the Menemsha Inn where (serendipity!!) Eisenstadt lived from late spring till Labor Day. Books of Eisie’s work were all over the inn. In bookcases, on tables. Most of the books featured his landscapes of Martha’s Vineyard.

I was using my first camera, a Practika with a great Zeiss 50mm lens. Great lens, but no electronic light meter. No electronic or automatic anything. It had a crank film advance.  A bare bones camera with a Zeiss lens. I had half a dozen rolls of black and white film.

It was ideal for a beginner. I had to learn how to take a light reading with a handheld meter. I had to focus the lens, set the shutter speed, the f-stop, and choose the film speed — though you only had to set film speed once each time you loaded the camera.

It wasn’t a lot of settings to learn, but they were and are the essentials of photography. If you can take a light reading, set film speed (now ISO), understand shutter speed, depth of field, and see when a picture is in focus —  and you recognize a picture when you see it — you’re home free. Everything else is dessert.

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Photo by Alfred Eisenstadt

My 50 mm lens was a prime. No zoom. It was a good piece of glass and moderately fast at f2.8. No flash.

If I wanted a close up, I could move closer to what I was shooting. A wide shot? Go back! I learned photography in a way those who’ve only used digital cameras and zoom lenses can never learn. Most of today’s photographers have never held a camera that doesn’t include auto-focus, much less taken a reading with a hand-held meter. (What’s a hand-held meter?)

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it does.

The camera was a gift from a friend who had bought a new camera. Armed with the Practika and determination, I followed Eisenstadt’s path around the Vineyard. I discovered where he’d taken each picture, figured out how he’d gotten the perspective, framed it.

I duplicated his shots down to the clump of grass behind which he’d crouched to create a foreground. I added a few twists of my own. I was winging it, but I winged well.

Photo by Alfred Eisenstadt

My first roll of film was brilliant — except the photographs were copies of Alfred Eisenstadt’s. He taught me photography by giving me foot prints to follow. By the time I was done with those first rolls of film, I had learned the fundamentals. I’m still learning.

When I actually met Alfred Eisenstadt, it was the most exciting moment of my life.

As we got to know Eisie better, I asked him to autograph his books for me. He didn’t merely autograph them. He went through each book, picture by picture.

He was in his early 90s and had forgotten many things, but remembered every picture he’d taken, including the film and camera, lens, F-stop, and most important, what he was thinking as he shot. He could remember exactly what it was about the image that grabbed his attention.

For example, the picture of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ Day, he said he was walking around Times Square with his Nikon. When he spotted the dark of the sailor’s uniform against the white of the nurse’s dress, he knew it was what he wanted and shot. Light, contrast, composition.

We spent time with him every summer for 5 years until he passed. We were honored to be among those invited to the funeral.

Although we were sad that Eisie was gone, we found things to laugh about. Knowing him was special and some memories are worth a chuckle. I don’t think Eisie would have minded.

SNOW DAYS

Growing up in New York, snow days were a special treat. Of course, it snowed every winter, but snows deep enough to close school weren’t common. Once per winter, maybe.

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I would sit, nose pressed against the picture window, watching the snow pile up and hoping it wouldn’t stop. “Keep snowing, keep snowing,” I’d whisper. I wanted to wake up to a white world. To that hushed, near-silence of a morning following a heavy snow.

Finally, no school! We would put on all our winter clothing — at the same time. Back then, kids didn’t have as much clothing as they do now … and it wasn’t nearly as warm. When we were finally all bundled up, we’d clomp to the garage to get the sleds. Drag them to the hill at the end of the street.

And now, back to our snowstorm, about 14 hours in progress with another 12 to go.
And now, back to our snowstorm, about 14 hours in progress with another 12 to go.

It was quite a hill. Steep. Icy. You could go really fast if you were in the right position. If you got it perfect, you could almost fly. If you hit a rock or a ridge of ice, you might really fly. We didn’t think anything of it, no matter how many times we limped home, dragging our shattered Flexible Flyer behind us.

My feet always froze. They hadn’t invented insulated footwear or Uggs. Our coats were just cloth. Even wearing all the sweaters we owned, we were never entirely warm. I was usually the first kid to give up for the day. My feet would go from cold, to numb, to painful icy lumps. Hands, too. Galoshes leaked and my socks would freeze.

Worse, rubber boots had no tread. It was a thrill going downhill, but going back up would be increasingly difficult as the day wore on. Ice would glaze. Eventually, there was nowhere to walk where you could get any traction, not even along the curb.

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Sometimes I could get my big brother to haul my sled and me up the hill, but pretty quickly, he’d lose interest and go off with the big boys to do big boy stuff, whatever that was.

I was the smallest of the girls. Scrawny and short. I remember going home, and defrosting my feet in cool water. Wow, that hurt. I think I was minutes from actual frostbite. I don’t know how anyone lasted all day, but some kids did.

deck and snowy woods

That was almost 60 years ago. Hard to believe so much time has passed. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. A frozen memory. Especially on a day like this, the big picture window framing the snow as it falls. It’s falling fast and hard and has been for hours. Garry keeps going out to dig a path for the dogs. More than four feet of snow in just over a week.

It’s winter in New England. I live about 250 miles north of where I grew up. Snow days are a regular feature. When we have a particularly hard winter, kids have to go to school extra days at the end of the year to make lost time.

It’s snowing hard. I wonder how many inches this time?

TEACHERS WHO CHANGED MY WORLD

Education today is a mess. Teachers aren’t allowed to teach and even worse, students don’t have the opportunity to really learn.

I was lucky because I had teachers who taught me to learn. To love reading, to make up stories. To write them down. To create non-fiction which was complete, accurate, and unbiased. To find humor in physics. To love history, religion, archaeology, philosophy and the mysteries of our world.

They encouraged curiosity, imagination and creative thinking.

Mrs. Schiff, 4th grade teacher at P.S. 35, who suggested I write “diaries” of historical people and learn to put myself into their worlds. Thank you. You made me feel special and talented and those lessons have traveled far and wide.

Dr. Silver, who taught English Literature and Linguistics at Jamaica High school. He forced me to parse sentences and respect punctuation and grammar while making me laugh. His doctorate in Linguistics helped him make our language intriguing, like a giant mystery to unravel. I’m still unraveling it.

Entry to the College

College was the most fun I ever had and the best work I ever did.

Mr. Wekerle, head of Hofstra University’s Philosophy department. He believed in me. He taught phenomenology, History of Religion, Philosophy of Religion, but more importantly, saw through my bullshit. The first — and only professor to give me a grade of D-/A+ … D- for content, A+ for style.

He didn’t let me get away with anything. He made me fill in all those leaps of logic even though I whined vociferously that “everyone knows that stuff.”

Wekerle said “No, they don’t. You know it. Now tell them about it.”

And I did and from that I got a 40 year career.

Dr. Feiffer — my high school physics teacher — taught me even I, the least mathematically inclined student ever — could be fascinated by science. I never got it together with numbers, but I learned to love science and still do. The logic of it, the truth of it, the importance of it have stayed with me an entire lifetime. I got what I needed from dedicated teachers who worked for crappy salaries to teach dunderheads and wise-asses like me to think, write, research and love learning.

The gifts they gave me were priceless.


Daily Prompt: Teacher’s Pet — Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?

NEVER LOOK BACK

Pens and Pencils – When was the last time you wrote something substantive — a letter, a story, a journal entry, etc. — by hand? Could you ever imagine returning to a pre-keyboard era?


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I learned to touch type the summer between sixth and seventh grade. Even though the New York city schools, at that point in time — heaven only knows what they teach these days — required every college-bound student to take a year of touch typing, that wasn’t enough for my mother. Typing wasn’t optional for her. She typed to my young eyes at a million words per minute. As far as I could tell, she never made a mistake. No white-out for her!

She believed typing was a necessary life skill, right up there with ironing. We disagreed about the ironing. I hated it. Still hate it. I’ve actually thrown away clothing rather than iron it. Oddly, though, while I was serious about collecting vintage and antique dolls, I spent days repairing, hand-washing, then ironing tiny, frilly dresses, coats, and hats. Life is full of paradox.

I wouldn’t iron for myself. When I married Garry, there was a codicil to our vows: for better or worse, but no ironing. Fortunately, Garry irons well and sometimes, if I grovel and prostrate myself, he will iron something for me.

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After I learned touch typing, I never wrote anything by hand. Except notes on cards. Those could hardly be called substantive. Lists. I write lists by hand. On paper. I have a little notebook I carry with me in which I jot down information I might need when I don’t have a computer nearby. Almost everything in my world lives somewhere on my computer or worse, online, on somebody else’s server. A single day without WiFi — or worse, minus electricity — and my world would grind to a full stop.

I admit it. I’m hooked.

I don’t have a handwriting anymore. I make weird errors when I write by hand, even weirder than the mistakes I make on a keyboard. I omit words and letters. I don’t leave space between words, sentences, and paragraphs. My writing slants up or downhill. As often as not, I get to the edge of the page in the middle of a word. Not the kind of place where a hyphen can be inserted. My words begin crawling up (or down) what ought to be a margin.

Fifty years ago, I forswore writing by hand. I doubt I could go back to writing by hand even if I wanted to, even if, by some horrible magical, nuclear, dystopian, catastrophic end-of-the-world scenario, all keyboards disappeared.

There’s history here. I fell madly, passionately in love with computers the moment I met one for the first time. It was 1982. Although I had earlier encountered word processors and of course, the big computer at my alma mater, this was my first personal, face-to-face with one of the Big Guys. Of course now, anyone’s smart phone can do more than that giant mainframe could do … but back then, it was a miracle.

We never forget that moment of first love, right? I had begun work with the development team of DB-1 at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. I was given a work station networked with the university’s main frame. When my finger caressed those keys, my mind screamed the message:

THIS IS A BETTER WAY.

I’ve never looked back. I never will.

OLD BLUE EYES AND THE KID – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I was still a kid, working at the college radio station in Hempstead, New York. I was a little older than the other kids, because I was recently back from my short stint in the Marine Corps. I don’t remember who provided my entrée for that interview, but I remember the night. How could I forget?

As a kid, I listened to big band vocalist Sinatra on “78” records. He was special even then. By the early 60’s, Sinatra was an entertainment institution. Music, movies, television and the subject of myriad publications which alluded to political and criminal intrigue.

How many romantic evenings have all of us had — candles, cocktails and Sinatra playing? He was a legend, America’s most iconic celebrity.

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Heady stuff for a young reporter invited to one of Sinatra’s hangouts. The story was about Jilly Rizzo. He ran a famous night spot in New York. “Jilly’s Saloon” (everybody just called it Jilly’s). It catered to lots of celebrities, but most notably Frank Sinatra and his “rat pack”. My primary focus that night was Jilly himself. We did a low-key chat about his club. Jilly did the talking. About his youth, how hard he worked to make his club a success. I let him talk, which he appreciated. He was fascinating. A real life Damon Runyon character.

The interview wrapped. I figured my night was over. Wrong. Jilly kept referring to me as “Kid”. As I prepared to leave with my engineer, Jilly tugged at my sleeve and motioned for me to follow him.

“Kid”, he said in his raspy voice, “I want you to meet some pals”. Jilly led me to a table filled with lots of cigarette smoke, profanity and laughter. I was a little nervous.

I had cause to be nervous. I made eye contact, my brain began to register and I began to smile blankly. Sinatra, Dino, Sammy, Joey Bishop and other familiar faces looked at me. My brain kept shifting gears. Apparently Jilly had introduced me as “Kid”, a newbie who was okay. That turned out to be my access card.

I realized I had a big glass of scotch in my hand. Frank Sinatra was talking to me, a big glass of scotch in his hand, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. I think I still had a glazed smile on my face.

“So, Kid”, he asked, “What the hell do you do that makes Jilly like you?”

I told him I had been listening to Jilly and found his back story fascinating. I told Sinatra I enjoyed listening rather than talking. It was easier, I volunteered. “You’re on radio and you like to listen rather than talk?”, he asked.

“Yes”, I said. I just stared at him.

He stared back, then said, “Kid, you’re okay”.

FrankSinatra9I slid into some questions about his childhood, about his weight, the difference between his singing and his conversational voice. Sinatra was off and running. The anecdotes had little to do with celebrity and lots to do with the guy behind the legend. I kept listening.

He noticed the tape recorder wasn’t running. Puzzled. I said this was social time. He looked even more puzzled, then shook his head and smiled. Sinatra said he wasn’t used to such treatment. I smiled. An easier smile.

I talked a little about my hearing problems, diction problems. My determination to get things right. Now Sinatra was listening. He said he too had diction problems during regular conversation which he tried to cover up with sarcasm and bluster. I realized he was leaning in as if to confide with me. I also noticed the other celebs had backed away, giving Sinatra privacy.

The conversation continued for another half hour, maybe 45 minutes. Jilly kept checking to make sure our drinks were fresh. I knew other people were staring at us. I figured they were wondering who the hell was this kid chatting up Sinatra. Actually, we were talking about music and radio. I told him about how I loved doing tight segues blending solo vocals, chorals, and instrumentals. He began giving me tips about how to segue some of his music. In a couple of cases, I was already doing it. He loved it.

We talked a little about sports. I told him I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and Duke Snider was my favorite player.

Sinatra said Joe DiMaggio and the Yanks were his favorites. I gave him a look and he smiled. Casey Stengel was our peace broker. Earlier that year, I’d spent time with Casey who was managing the fledgling New York Mets. Sinatra laughed at my recollection of conversation with Casey.

“Diction”, we both said and laughed.

Jilly Rizzo finally broke up the chat saying Sinatra was needed elsewhere. Sinatra grumbled, gave me a card and said there would be another time. There would be. Another story for another day.


THE DAILY PROMPT: IMPOSSIBILITY 

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – the White Queen, Alice in Wonderland.

Garry Hall of Fame Lectern 2

Sometimes, looking back on my life, it’s hard to believe I did all of that and took it in stride. Not six things … a thousand things … done every day as if they were no big deal. They were no big deal at the time. Looking backward, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, turns out they were something special As time slouches on, the memories become increasingly precious and fun to remember.

This is my first connection with the Daily Prompt! And I haven’t finished my first cup of coffee. Never would have expected this!

SAVING SANDY

A bunch of us had gathered at Sandy’s house. She was a cook, aspiring to be a professional. When she invited us for a meal, it was good. Always a good feeding and delicious. We were her test subjects, never knowing what great idea she’d come up with. Whatever, we were happy to eat it.

On this day, Sandy was dressed — as always — in a loose Indian blouse and long skirt. The blouse had angel-wing sleeves. Very pretty, if slightly inappropriate for working in the kitchen. All of us had been smoking a little hashish. Hashish was ubiquitous, available everywhere. The appetizer for dinner to come.

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“Hey,” I said. “Sandy! You are on fire.” Sure enough, the wings of her blouse had passed smoldering — I’d missed that — and were in flames.

“Oh,” said Sandy, flustered.

All the friends stood there, staring at the pretty fire. Dummies, I thought. “Hey,” I yelled, “Don’t just stand there. DO something.”

Then, I put out the fire. Cotton doesn’t flame up quickly and if one is attentive, it’s easy to douse. Sandy thanked me profusely for a perfectly normal thing I’d have done for anyone. What was puzzling was how come the rest of the gang had stood there with their mouths open, apparently at a loss to know what to do. “Not good in a crisis,” I surmised.

“No one else tried to put out the fire,” Sandy pointed out.

“Not a big deal,” I said. And it wasn’t. I don’t know why I was the only one who realized that “Sandy is on fire” should be followed by putting out the fire.

Sandy stopped wearing loose clothing in the kitchen and stopped inviting those particular friends for dinner. Shortly thereafter, following a misunderstanding with the local constabulary about growing certain plants on her balcony, she moved to San Francisco and opened a chain of take-out restaurants.

I visited her there. She’s doing fine and no longer feels obliged to grow her own on the balcony. In any case, it’s legal.


Author’s Note: Today’s Daily Prompt: Daring Do, is another rerun. My original is still posted. This version has been lightly edited. I also changed the picture. I do have to thank WordPress for this unexpected opportunity to get another run out of an archived post.

KINDERGARTEN – THAT FIRST DAY

September 1951.

1952 with my brother
1951 with my brother

I am probably the youngest kid in the class. I’m only four, but somehow, here I am. I’m certainly the smallest. Everyone seems so big. I don’t know it yet, but I will always be either the shortest or next to the shortest kid in every class for the next six years. The school looks huge. Monstrous. Many years later, when I come back to visit, it will be tiny, a miniature school. Even the steps are half the height of normal.

But I don’t know about stairs yet because kindergarten is on the ground floor. They don’t want the little kids getting run down by bigger ones.

The windows go all the way to the ceiling, which is very high. To open or close them, Mrs. O’Rourke has to use an enormous hook-on-a-pole. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows like we have at home. Our windows open by turning a crank; anyone, even I, can open them.

The teacher is kind of old. She’s got frizzy grey hair. She talks loud and slow. Does she think I’m stupid? Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

Now it’s nap time. We are supposed to put our blankets on the floor and go to sleep, but I don’t nap. I haven’t taken a nap ever, or at least not that I can remember. And anyway, I don’t have a blanket because my mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have them. I wish I had one because I feel weird being the only one without a blanket and a shoe box.

Worse yet, I don’t have crayons. I wish I had some. The ones everyone can use are broken and colors no one likes. My mother didn’t know what I was supposed to bring. She’s busy. I just got a new sister who cries all the time and mommy didn’t have time to come to school and find out about all this stuff.

So I sit in a chair and wait, being very quiet, while every one is napping. I don’t think they are really asleep, but everyone goes and lays down on the floor on a blanket and pretends. It give Mrs. O’Rourke time to write things in her book.

It’s a long day. I have almost a mile to walk home. Mommy doesn’t drive and anyway, she doesn’t worry about me. She knows I’ll find my way. It’s only that it’s all uphill. I’m tired. Why do I have to do this stuff?

By the time I know the answer, it won’t matter any more. School has become the ordinary stuff of life and why no longer applies.


First! – Tell us about your first day at something — your first day of school, first day of work, first day living on your own, first day blogging, first day as a parent, whatever.

Note this is a rerun — a double rerun having been first a weekly writing challenge, then a daily prompt. This is my original response to the Weekly Writing Challenge. I don’t see why I can’t rerun the answers if WordPress is going to keep rerunning the questions. Besides, I like this piece. And I love the picture. Little me with the fuzzy hair and my big brother.