On a nice day in May, as I lay in my zero gravity chair in the backyard, looking up, examining cloud patterns etched in a blue dome, its bottoms fringed round with the yellow-green of spring trees—it occurred to me that however much time this reverie took, I could spare.
Growing older, I become more patient. With each passing year—each step closer to the chasm that ends this life and drops us into the next—I am less concerned about running out of time.
When young I was often impatient.
Now, my impatience is all used up.
In the midst of the storm and strife, the middle years of life, there are things to accomplish that seem time-bound. We must prove ourselves in some minor skill before we can move up the ladder. We must pile up enough gold to send our kids to college by the time they are ready to go. We need to stretch and to strive, to scrimp and to save, to squirrel away assets against the future.
All that is behind me. Now, everything worth doing seems to want all my attention. It is less vital to finish than to engage.
Kipling sketched a remarkable image of the afterlife—only I suppose it applies to my here and now:
When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it—lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comet’s hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from—Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one will work for the money, and no one will work for the fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!
We who have lived beyond the hustle and urgency of mid-life know a secret we could tell to those still trapped in that gosh-awful hurly-burly. But it’s no good; they would not listen.
Or rather, they would not hear. Even gifted with the best intentions and the strongest focus, they could not hear. You don’t have ears for that secret until it becomes your own.
It is the whisper of Eternity. It says: Go. Do. Enjoy. Be. You have all the time there is.
A news story stunned my ears last week, courtesy of Wisconsin Public Radio.
“A bipartisan bill is expected to be released this month that would change the way most public schools in Wisconsin teach reading,” reported Corinne Hess.
“. . . Instead of being taught reading through pictures, word cues and memorization, children would be taught using a phonics-based method that focuses on learning to sound out letters and phrases.
“According to [the Department of Public Instruction], only about 20 percent of school districts are using a phonics-based approach to literacy education. Other reading curriculums that don’t include phonics have been shown to be less effective for students.”
Whoa. Stop the presses!
Bipartisan? Could peace be at hand in the Great Reading War?
When I was a kid in 1951—yes, 72 years ago—our teachers taught us phonics. They leaked the remarkable secret that each letter represents one or more sounds in the spoken English language. (I mean American English, Dear Reader. I hold no brief for British, ANZAC, or South African speakers who utter tortured diphthongs where we would use vowels.)
We learned that “a” can be pronounced long, as in “bake”; short, as in “flag”; soft, as in “father”; and so forth. We learned that “c” is sometimes hard, as in “cat,” and sometimes soft, as in “recess.” Interestingly, “bicycle” has a soft c and a hard c, both in one word. “Y,” also interestingly, can sound like a long “i,” as in “tyke,” or as a long “e,” as in “candy,” or as a short “i,” as in “bicycle.” But sometimes it has a special motive force of its own, as in “Yankee.”
We were taught that phonics rules had exceptions—quite a few of them, actually. For example, sometimes the sound normally represented by the letter f is actually spelled with the two letters “ph,” as in “telephone.” Sometimes the two-letter combination “ch” is pronounced like a hard c or a k, as in “chorus,” not with the soft “ch” sound of “chair.” And so forth, and so on.
Oh, so many exceptions. Yet, even with all these exceptions, the whole thing hung together and made a kind of sense.
When you met an unfamiliar word you could “sound it out,” and nine times out of ten it turned out to be a word you already knew. You could produce a string of sounds from a word’s letters, and you would suddenly recognize the word.
Hallelujah! A light bulb went on in your head.
Sometimes you had to try three or four runs at it, using alternate pronunciations, but eventually you could figure it out.
The opportunity to sound out the words you didn’t know made reading a joy. You could move forward at a decent speed. A great bonus was that when you figured out a word, all its snags and bumps stayed with you. So when you discovered that “diaphragm” spelled dy-uh-fram, not dy-uh-fraggum, you remembered that silent g ever afterward.
It was never a perfect system, but it worked pretty well for those of us who were thoroughly drilled in phonics in the first two or three grades of school.
So what could possibly go wrong?
Politics, that’s what.
In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published a book called Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do About It. Flesch’s thesis was that a new method of reading instruction—the so-called “whole word” or “look-say” method—was robbing a generation of youngsters of the power of reading. Instead of learning to associate letters with sounds and thereby sound out the words they were reading, young people were expected to simply recognize words one by one, from their general shape. This made reading into an insurmountable guessing game, according to Flesch—akin to the challenge faced by young Chinese who need to learn thousands of separate characters.
The whole word method was not actually new—education guru Horace Mann embraced it in the 1840s—but it had gradually supplanted phonics instruction in American public schools in the first half of the twentieth century.
When Flesch launched his withering critique in 1955, it met stiff resistance from a liberal educational establishment that had largely adopted the whole word method and rejected phonics. This debate soon went the way of all debates in our fractured society: The politicians made it their own. Reading became just another battlefront in our great cultural war. If you were conservative you favored phonics; if you were liberal, you pooh-poohed phonics and favored the whole word approach (also called the whole language approach).
That frozen paradigm has persisted through six or seven decades. If you were for phonics, you might want to put the 19th-century McGuffey readers back in the classroom; you might also be suspicious of fluoride in the water supply and aspire to Make America Great Again. On the other hand, if you favored the whole language approach, you were probably a card-carrying member of the teachers’ union and wanted to put Critical Race Theory in the classrooms.
A Freshening Wind
Now, there seems to be a shift in the wind. For the first time in my long memory, it seems both sides have tired of treating reading as a political football and are seeking to coalesce on “evidence-based” or “scientific” methods of reading instruction. And scientific evidence has accumulated in favor of phonics to the point where it cannot be ignored.
But here’s what’s really new: The Republican assemblyman drafting new legislation on the matter is working with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to draft a plan teachers can embrace. Liberal Democratic governor Tony Evers, himself a veteran educator, sounds willing to endorse a bipartisan phonics plan.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if educational practices, for once, were not held hostage to partisan ideologies? One would like to think it can happen.
A Personal View
I was taught phonics. My wife, also a product of the 1950s, learned to read by the whole word method. I am a good speller and know a lot about the way words are put together. My wife is not a confident speller and is deaf to many verbal nuances.
On the other hand, there are probably people who became excellent spellers and wordsmiths without ever being exposed to phonics. And there are probably people who learned phonics but did not learn to read very well. No theory can fully capture the natural differences in people’s aptitudes and learning styles.
As a traditionalist, I look askance at laws that would dictate teaching methods statewide. What ever happened to local school boards?, I wonder. Should not they, rather than the legislature or the DPI, control the curriculum and pedagogy in their own schools?
In an era when powerful forces militate for broad uniformity of policy in all arenas, there is something to be said for the idea of local variation—or at least, for the possibility of local variation. It’s hard to imagine that Milwaukee and Black River Falls have the same set of problems and need identical solutions.
Even with that caveat, if current trends bring about a re-emphasis on phonics, that’s probably a good thing—especially if we can bury the hatchet on our longstanding war over how children learn to read.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
What is it that drives me back upon the past, to consider what has gone before and view it in a new light? I feel the need more strongly with each passing year.
When we get old, we want to make young people understand.
The portents of the past, things our children and grandchildren do not know simply because they were not there. The world I grew up in was not only different, it was instructive.
My mind reels back to Streator, Illinois, population 17,500—the town where I lived between the ages of six and twelve. The years were 1951 to 1957. The rhythms and facts of life told us who we were and taught us how to be.
People needed things. But shopping malls, strip malls, and convenience stores on the edge of town—these had not yet been invented. So what were we to do? We went downtown, of course.
All the stores were on Main Street, or on half a dozen streets that intersected Main in what was called “the business district.” We had a big, solid bank; two department stores, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward; a couple of dime stores; dry goods stores, men’s and women’s clothing stores; a store that sold sheet music, band instruments, phonograph records and the machines to play them; two movie theaters, a few family-style restaurants, and several taverns.
Stores opened at nine a.m. and closed at five p.m., but on Saturday they stayed open till nine at night. People drove into town from outlying farms. They walked up and down the streets, shopping or window-shopping in the stores.
We town-dwellers did the same thing. Thus the streets were crowded every Saturday night. You were always bumping into people you had just seen at school or at work yesterday. Sometimes you encountered an old friend you hadn’t seen in nearly a week!
It taught us we were members of a community.
Sunday was a day of rest. Nothing was open on Sunday except the churches, a few gas stations, and the little mom-and-pop stores—one in each neighborhood—that sold newspapers, candy, bubble gum, cigarettes, and the occasional quart of milk or box of crackers.
For a few weeks in summer, muscular, leathery men in clean blue jeans, western shirts, and cowboy hats joined the promenade on the streets of town. They were Navajos and worked most of the year repairing track and roadbed for the Santa Fe railroad. They worked their way north, arriving in our area in early summer. They lived in dormitory railcars that were parked on a siding near the high school athletic field.
On Saturday nights, these Navajos got cleaned up and went downtown like everybody else, adding an exotic element to our community. When they were in our vicinity, they just came downtown on Saturday night, like everybody else. It was what you did.
Our parents taught us that people who are different from you are still people, and that people who do hard jobs are worthy of respect on that account alone.
Men went out to work in offices, shops, or factories, or on farms. Women worked at home doing housework, which was more demanding in those days. Clothing was washed in cylindrical tubs, then run between a pair of rollers on top of the tub to wring the water out. Then you hung the clothes on a cotton line in the backyard to dry.
When the sun had dried the clothes stiff, they were taken down, remoistened with water from a sprinkling bottle, and ironed. Irons were electric, but they were not yet steam irons. Therefore clothes had to be dampened before ironing so the wrinkles would come out. Wrinkled clothes were considered unsightly; permanent press fabrics did not exist. The woman of the household spent at least one full day each week, maybe two, on laundry and ironing.
Every spring Mom had a special job to do, part of spring cleaning. She had to clean soot off the walls. We burned soft coal for heat all through the winter. Tiny specks of soot wafted through heating ducts and clung to walls and other surfaces. Most of our walls were covered with wallpaper, which in those days was literally paper. You couldn’t get it wet.
So mom used a special wallpaper-cleaning compound. You rubbed a lump of it across the wall, picking up soot, then folded the soot inside and used a clean part of the lump on the next stroke; over and over again. When coal furnaces and old-fashioned wallpaper were things of the past, the wallpaper cleaning compound was re-merchandised as Play-Doh.
Not only laundry and housecleaning, but food preparation was more labor-intensive. Housewives took full advantage of canned foods and the new frozen foods—TV dinners—that became available, but most food was not prepackaged. It had to be cooked on a stove, electric or gas-fired. We didn’t have microwave ovens yet.
Women used lard a lot in cooking. Often the lard was actually bacon grease, drained from the skillet and saved in a tub in the refrigerator.
There was no “Take Your Children to Work Day.” Opportunities to shadow Dad at work were rare for most of us. But we got to see Mom hard at work on her many tasks every day. It gave us a respect for our mothers.
For all that, life was not just a daily grind. There was a fair amount of skylarking.
Gasoline was cheap, traffic was light, and America’s love affair with the private automobile was in full bloom. Often on weekends in the summer Dad loaded us into the car for a drive in the country. We just drove around, looking at farms and forests. We kids rolled the windows down and stuck our faces out into the slipstream like cocker spaniels. We seldom exceeded fifty miles per hour, which was about what the roads would allow. The Interstate system was just starting to be built; none of us had ever experienced driving on a superhighway.
On the way home we would stop at the root beer stand for—what else?—root beer. It was a delightful treat on a Friday or Saturday night. We learned that life had simple pleasures to offer, and they are good.
General Mills and the other cereal companies offered wonderful emoluments for children—secret decoder rings, a square inch of land in the Klondike gold fields, miniature atomic submarines that rose and sank in the bathtub when fueled with baking soda.
You had to send in one or two boxtops from the sponsor’s cereal brand, along with twenty-five cents “in coins or stamps,” to a postal box in Battle Creek, Michigan. It usually took two or three weeks for the small parcel with the prize to arrive in the mail. That taught us the principle of delayed gratification.
Far be it from me to suggest, Dear Reader, that our daily routines were a preconceived set of lesson plans to educate us in important life skills and attitudes. But that’s what they amounted to. That was the effect.
I lie awake nights wondering if my grandchildren will grow up easy marks for fast-talking salesmen because they were never wooed by the siren song of the Duncan Yo-yo representative in the vacant lot beside Marx’s store on a balmy afternoon in May.
No wonder I’m starting to look haggard. I guess we’ll just have to hope for the best.
We stand unprepared, all thumbs and fumbles, wondering what to do. Like always.
It’s AI, artificial intelligence, and it’s coming to get you. Elon Musk said recently that artificial intelligence “has the potential of civilizational destruction.” Never mind that he might have had selfish reasons for saying that. You’ve got to consider the possibility that he told the truth.
We’ve known for decades that someday machines would learn to think. I once read a futuristic short story in Playboy magazine, back in the days when we all read Playboy for the articles (nod, nod, wink, wink). In this story, a worldwide group of computers had been connected with one another. Their pooled intellect gave birth to an über entity which took over the world, cutting biological humans out of the picture.
I don’t remember the story’s title, or who wrote it, but it appeared in the 1960s.
So we can’t say we didn’t see this coming.
But now, it’s here, arriving on our doorstep last week, in a COVID-style sneak attack. Remember March 12, 2020, when they canceled March Madness?
It now seems the second full week of April 2023 will be remembered as When AI Became a Serious Matter.
People—not scientists necessarily, but the kind of dreamy folks I hang out with, i.e., writers and philosophers—now report playing around with something called ChatGPT. In their playing around, they have discovered that ChatGPT can write prose that seems remotely like something a human being might have written.
But I gather, from what those others are saying: The problem is not that one cannot detect the output is computer-generated. Rather, it is that for the first time one can imagine that in the future—for example, later this afternoon—ChatGPT or a similar program will get good enough that one can no longer tell the difference.
Never mind the potential end of world civilization; AI could impact writers.
This is serious.
I took part in a recent colloquium of concerned authors. Scores, maybe hundreds, of authors attended. Many of these authors, unlike Your New Favorite Writer, earn all or part of their income by writing.
I started out puzzled but eventually caught the drift. Or, rather, drifts.
1. AI programs will soon start writing better than we can . . . or almost as well as we can . . . and we’ll all go broke. Publishers will no longer need human authors. They’ll just push a button on a machine and get a book, ready for release. No royalties will be owed to any humans. The AI machines, we assume, will accept their wages in electricity and silicon.
2. Since AI is already quite useful at discharging the kinds of tediosities with which we writers are burdened, some of us hunger to use AI programs or bots—or whatever they are—in our own writing practice. Not for writing, you understand. Oh no, never!! Rather, we would use them as slave labor for menial tasks—up to and perhaps including the elaboration of trial texts which the writer may then modify. Thus we would reserve the higher functions of authorship for us who so richly deserve royalty checks. This would be, I suppose, something like the way research professors use graduate students. In this sense, AI is merely a tool, like a dictionary or thesaurus, clearly beneath the mystical heights of creative writing.
But you’ve already seen, have you not?—It’s so hard to get ahead of you, Astute Reader—how in some vague way this second concern is already at odds with the first?
3. So, to reconcile the first and second concerns, some participants declared we authors ought to embrace AI to whatever extent is warranted, so long as the publishers are required to attribute each published work to a specific human author—one who gets paid.
It would take at least an act of Congress to make this happen. But a squadron of intellectual property lawyers is already cranking up its engines to bombard publishing contracts and book copyright pages with model provisions—“guardrails,” they call them—protecting authors’ rights to control the use of their product, and importantly, to get paid.
This drafting of guardrail language, all by itself, strikes me as a Herculean task. But it may be necessary work, because as you know, what people can do, they will do.
There is no holding back this tide of AI. It’s a giant wave, and we shall either find a way to shoot the curl or be crushed in the collapsing pipeline.
4. Beside the three areas of concern already mentioned, there is another. It seems existing AI platforms already incorporate the output of human authors as a training aid. The chatbots are learning to write better because their creators feed them sample text from published books that are the copyrighted property of authors—without acknowledgment or compensation, as far as I can tell.
It may be possible, through legal action by authors’ groups, to prohibit the use of authors’ works as training materials for AI bots, or even to claw back some form of payment for the unauthorized uses that have already occurred.
It’s yet another messy area for the lawyers to sort out. But I take it as a mere corollary of two more basic questions:
1. Who’s going to do the writing, people or machines? And,
2. Who’s going to reap the benefits, authors or publishers?
Pardon my chutzpah, Gracious Reader, but I suspect we’re still missing the Big Picture.
It’s all about the power of narrative. I once heard a lecturer say that when it’s time for bed, kids ask for stories. They don’t say, “Mommy, please read me the telephone book” or, “Daddy, I want to hear a grocery list.” They say, “Read me a story” or even, “Tell me a story.”
Authors are storytellers. Even technical writers owe their jobs to the particular skill of stating scientific or technical facts in a way that allows readers to understand those facts as a sequence of events including a chain of causation. In other words, they tell stories, no less than novelists or playwrights do. What’s true for technical writers is even more obviously true for freelance journalists and for the authors of narrative nonfiction books.
So, if we storytellers are afraid that publishers will gain access to computer programs that allow them to cut us out of the profits, ought not the publishers worry that they, likewise, will be cut out of the profits?
If AI can write as well as human writers, will there not come a day (perhaps next Tuesday) when you can pull a cell phone from your pocket and command: “Tell me a story.” And the phone will make up a story on the spot and either speak it or type it to you. Maybe it will even assemble a complex dramatic video for your entertainment.
And—get this, Dear Reader— the product will be first-rate. It won’t be merely grammatical. It will be tense and compelling. Maybe not hilarious—humor is notoriously difficult, and it may exceed the capability of machines to learn. But they’ll be able to assemble great suspense and action films. They’ll do it all by themselves. You can order up an original story at the touch of a thumb.
Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, upon viewing a flawless forgery of an art masterpiece, “It has all the virtues of the original, except originality.” The same may be said of these future machine-generated stories. Readers, however, will still gobble them up.
BUT SO WHAT? What difference does all this make?
If we can get stories concocted instantly by our phones, what impact will that have on literature? Surely it will mean authors and publishers as we know them will no longer exist—at least, not in any traditional framework.
Yet story will survive.
If we look to our phones for stories, that’s only because story is a basic requirement of the human race. You might even say the capacity for story is what makes us human.
One can easily imagine machines telling stories.
One cannot imagine machines needing stories told.
Only humans need that. And those who hear stories can also invent other stories. In fact, some of us can’t help ourselves.
So story will survive. Humanity will go on. There will still be human storytellers.
I’ll still be here, writing the old-fashioned way, regardless what the machines may be doing. Whether I’ll be paid is another question; but then, I’m not being paid now.
Perhaps you recall reading about my old band teacher, Emerson Ebert, in a post on Tuesday, March 28.
I learned, to my delight, that Mister Ebert is alive and going strong at age 98. So I printed a copy of the blog post and mailed it to him, with a cover letter expressing, first, how startled I would be if he remembered me after more than sixty-five years; and, second, how much I was hoping he would not be offended by my writing about him.
A few days later, I received this wonderful note from Mister Ebert, written in a firm hand:
What a surprise when I received the letter from Larry Sommers.
Believe it or not I do remember Johnny Stevens, Jack Spencer and Larry Sommers.
You certainly described the Streator music program in detail.
This was a real walk thru the past for me.
At any rate you can’t imagine how rewarding your letter was to me. Thank you!
Emerson W. Ebert
He was not displeased. In fact, he was pleased.
Encouraged, I put through a phone call to a number I had which I thought might be his. I left a message, and when he called me back I was delighted to speak with a man I knew back in the Fifties, when he was a grown man and I was a kid.
We had a nice, long chat. It included pleasantries, memories, and updates. Finally, we rung off.
Two things come out of this, Dear Reader:
1. When you reach the far end of life, you often appreciate more those people you took for granted, or were not particularly close to, in the early days. Such is the case with Mister Ebert, who really struggled heroically in the parlous exercise of teaching us music.
2. The rewards of authorship are not limited to money or fame—neither of which is guaranteed, anyway. There are moments when something you have written kindles a new friendship or reaffirms an old one. These rewards are just as sweet as the other kind.
Last week, NASA revealed the four astronauts who will fly on Artemis II, the first crewed moon mission since Apollo flights ended fifty years ago.
U.S. astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, and Christina Hammock Koch, and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, posed in their spiffy orange spacesuits, offering visual proof they are diverse as well as handsome. Their resumés show that three of the four also come densely packed with traditional test pilot skills.
Exciting as this news is, I had to stifle a yawn.
We have stood on this threshold before. The first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. When they were introduced in a Washington, D.C., press conference on April 9, 1959—sixty-four years ago—America stood enthralled.
I was thirteen. It was an electrifying moment. These seven would be the world’s first spacemen. They would transform science fiction into history.
The Pre-Space Era
I can’t say how the moment seemed to adults. For us kids, the Mercury space-flight program was both exciting and satisfying. It was the due fulfillment of a long-held dream. We had been reared and nurtured on science fiction.
On radio and TV, we had ventured into space with Commander Buzz Corry and his sidekick, Cadet Happy, on Space Patrol; with Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; with Captain Video, Commando Cody, and Flash Gordon. These shows had wildly fluctuating production values, but some of their writers would appear in the enduring pantheon of the science fiction genre—Damon Knight, James Blish, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Cyril M. Kornbluth, among others.
Meanwhile, at the Streator Public Library, we checked out books like Step to the Stars and Mission to the Moon, by Lester Del Rey; Rocket Ship Galileo and Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert A. Heinlein; Islands in the Sky and Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke; and I, Robot and Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. These writers and others informed us of scientific facts and expanded our horizons beyond comic-strip space operas.
A significant subtext of all these books, stories, and articles was the blithe assumption that Americans—who else?—would pave the way to the stars. Which is why, on October 5, 1957, we kids were so well-prepared to be keenly disappointed by the news that Russia, not the United States, had launched the first man-made satellite, a healthy 184-pound baby named Sputnik.
It shocked us to learn that the much-maligned Soviet Union had the physical and intellectual wherewithal to beat the United States into space. Our whole nation had egg on its face.
There ensued a furious campaign to raise up more scientists and engineers, on the quick. By the time rocketry had been developed to the point where humans could ride on the front ends of the darned things, we had almost caught up.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rode into space on a Soviet rocket less than a month before American astronaut Alan Shepard did the same. Still, the Russians were ahead.
Later that spring, on May 25, 1961, our new president, John F. Kennedy, laid down a marker he thought America stood a good chance of redeeming: Set foot on the moon, and return safely, before the end of the decade—and, incidentally, before the Russians.
The Mercury and Gemini manned space programs laid the groundwork for this achievement, and the Apollo program did it, with months to spare, by landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon July 20, 1969.
The Big Letdown
Once science fiction had become fact, the wind went out of NASA’s sails.
Five subsequent Apollo missions landed people on the moon, for a total of twelve men. Further programs like Skylab, the Space Shuttle program, and the International Space Station have kept us in space almost continuously. But these programs have the feel of a turning inward. Since reaching the moon, we have not ventured beyond.
This has come as a bit of a surprise to us children of the Fifties. Most of the science fiction we read plotted space flight as a continuous progression from the moon to Mars, and from Mars on to interstellar space. Certainly latter-day science fiction vehicles like Star Trek and Star Wars have taken that long line of development as a given.
Human affairs, however, are always a start-and-stop thing. There are wars. There are recessions. There are hesitancies and second thoughts. Funding is re-allocated. Things happen.
Now, NASA has its sights set on Mars. Establishing a permanent continuous presence on the moon will be a big first step. The Artemis Four will have their work cut out for them.
He was an ordinary-looking man, of average height, with a hairline which had already receded to the top of his head. The hair on the sides and back was just long enough, and wavy enough, to make you think of some old poet with ruffles at his collar.
Mister Emerson Ebert was not a poet. He did not wear ruffles at his collar, or down his shirt front or at his cuffs for that matter. He wore a plain two-piece suit and tie—a standard uniform in those days.
Because he was about my parents’ age, I thought him old. Actually, he and they were only in their thirties.
He was a musician. I don’t mean he played in the New York Philharmonic, or in Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians. He did not, as far as I know, write symphonies or even commercial jingles. But he was a musician nonetheless.
Here are some of the music things he did.
He directed the intermediate and concert bands that combined the instrumentalists of half a dozen public grade schools, and two junior highs, in Streator, Illinois (pop. 17,500). Although the junior high band was called “The Concert Band,” both organizations were in fact marching units. So in addition to conducting us musically, he taught us how to march; and not only how to march, but how to play instruments while marching.
If you have not done that yourself, Dear Reader, I suggest you give it a try some time. It’s not as easy as it looks from the Goodyear Blimp.
To have instrumentalists filling the intermediate and concert bands, Mister Ebert first had to teach scores of young savages how to play instruments. One does not teach beginners to play instruments in general, but rather to play specific instruments—all the various woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments.
For example, Mister Ebert taught me, and several of my classmates, how to play the clarinet. But he taught Johnny Stevens and Jack Spencer and several others how to play the slide trombone. Still other classmates he taught to play the flute, the saxophone, the trumpet, the cornet, the tuba, and all the different kinds of drums. Yes, French horns, too. And oboes.
You may inquire, “How does one man teach all those different instruments?” That’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer, but Emerson Ebert did.
I’m not sure you must totally master a particular instrument to teach it to beginning students. At least you need to know which end of the horn to blow into.
You must teach the fingerings that go with each particular instrument. You must know a good tone from a bad tone, and how to achieve the former and avoid the latter. In other words, you have to know what you’re doing.
Did I mention that half dozen or so grade schools contributed musicians to the intermediate and concert bands?
But there was only the one Mister Ebert.
Streator was a smallish town. The high school may have had more than one band teacher, but all the grade schools had to share Mister Ebert.
Each week he went to each grade school and gave small group lessons to beginning students. A group lesson for the clarinets; another for the saxophones; another for the flutes, and so forth. A guy could use up quite a bit of time that way. But how else are you going to raise up instrumentalists to play in the band?
Apart from the question of technical expertise, there is the question of endurance. An aspiring musician must play a few hundred thousand bad notes before he or she consistently makes good notes. Our parents had to hear those bad notes when we practiced at home, which most of us did not do as much as we were supposed to.
Mister Emerson Ebert heard the rest of those bad notes at school.
I can testify that when you first pick up the clarinet, you must learn to produce a sound through a wooden reed affixed to a mouthpiece. It is a little like blowing on a duck call, but not nearly so mellifluous.
Mister Ebert got to hear all that. And imagine! He even got paid for it. What a lucky guy.
For all that, he was a surprisingly even-tempered man. I do remember one afternoon, however, when we clarinets were tootling away under his instruction in the practice room at Garfield School.
A rumor had gone round that Mister Ebert’s wife was due to deliver a baby at any moment.
He sat in a chair near us, using a wooden drumstick as a baton to beat a little rhythm for whatever song it was we were practicing. It was a hot, sticky day in early fall or late spring—and in those days schools were not air-conditioned.
One of us—it could have been me, I really don’t remember—hit a really sour note.
Mister Ebert’s hand flashed like Bob Feller’s pitching arm as he flung the drumstick across the room, where it crashed against the chalk rail at the bottom of the blackboard
That focused our attention.
He got up, walked across the room, and picked up the drumstick from the floor. Astoundingly, neither it nor the chalk rail nor the blackboard had suffered any damage. He walked back to his chair, sat down, and lifted the drumstick again into conducting position. He cleared his throat.
“Continue,” he said, and waved the baton.
The baby was born later that day.
The Grand Parade
Eventually, we entered junior high and became members of the Concert Band. We were given dashing blue uniforms with gold braid at the shoulders and gold stripes down the pants. The first time we wore these was for the annual Pumpkin Festival Parade in Eureka, Illinois, the Pumpkin Capital of the Free World.
“Now,” Mister Ebert said, “there are several units of horses marching ahead of us. So watch where you step. If you have to break formation to march around something, keep on playing and just get right back in line.”
I regale you with all this, Dear Reader, not in order to toot my own horn.
This post is not about me, but about Emerson Ebert.
But I must confess that, when we moved away from Streator when I was in eighth grade, I ditched the clarinet. I never became Benny Goodman. I never became any kind of a musician.
Oh, I sing in our church choir these days. That much I do. And I listen to music now and then. I like most kinds of music. But I seldom go to concerts.
Well, I do attend several school concerts each year, because our grandchildren perform. Elsie sings in the school choir and plays trombone in the band. Tristan is taking up viola.
At Tristan’s strings concert the other day, I couldn’t help noticing a few harried-looking adults in the ranks of youthful musicians, helping them tune up, waving hands and batons to lead them through their numbers—all the while enduring every note which come forth: the just right, the almost, and the nowhere near. With smiles on their faces.
That’s what brought Emerson Ebert to mind.
You see, without ever becoming a musician, I did learn a bit of music. I learned to like different kinds of music. I learned how to keep a beat. When I joined the Air Force and went to basic training, I already knew how to march.
I knew that you should watch where you step—always an important thing.
I can say I have experienced the exaltation that comes when sitting in the middle of a large ensemble of horn blowers and drum bangers all playing the same Sousa march at more or less the same time.
Thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of young people have received that experience because Emerson Ebert, or his counterparts across the land, have given it to them.
Occasionally we hear news of some school system making a budgetary decision to eliminate music programs—in other words, to fire music teachers.
Wrong move. Cut out almost anything else if you must, but let the Emerson Eberts of the world do what they do. We can’t be human without music.
By a happy coincidence, March is Music in Our Schools Month.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
The new thing called television was run by the same networks that ran the old thing called radio.
Popular radio programs, from The Lone Ranger to Art Linkletter’s House Party, were carried over to TV and brought their loyal audiences with them.
A great radio show was The Jack Benny Program, a weekly half-hour of hilarity and running gags that ruled the air from from 1932 to 1955. Benny, like many others, made the jump from radio to TV, appearing on CBS television from 1950 to 1964 and on NBC for one year after that. For five years, he and his ensemble pulled off the frenetic trick of appearing regularly in both media.
An Overnight Success
He was Benjamin Kubelsky, a violin player from Waukegan, Illinois. After achieving great mediocrity in school and business, the dreamy 18-year-old took his fiddle to the vaudeville stage in 1912.
Famed violinist Jan Kubelik hinted at legal action because of the similarity of names. Kubelsky, adding jokes to his routine, changed his billing to “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology.”
Ben Bernie, a well-known “patter-and-fiddle” star, was not amused. The new kid’s name was too similar.
Kubelsky—having meanwhile served in the U.S. Navy for World War I—adopted the name Jack, common parlance for a sailor (“Jack Tar”).
After two decades of scratching out a living, first as a vaudevillian, then as a movie novice at MGM, Jack Benny auditioned for NBC Radio and became an overnight success.
Show Within a Show
For NBC, Benny—billed as “the star of stage, screen, and radio”—exercised his dramatic skills by portraying a radio comic named Jack Benny.
This fellow Benny lived a sedate bachelor life in Beverly Hills. He employed the gravel-voiced Rochester, a butler-valet-chauffeur played by black actor Eddie Anderson. Benny’s girlfriend Mary Livingstone (in real life his wife, Sadie Marks) dropped by often, as did people from the cast of his radio show: bandleader Phil Harris, boyish tenor Dennis Day, the closely harmonious Sportsmen Quartet, and rotund announcer Don Wilson.
Add a rotating cast of quirky character actors including multi-voiced Mel Blanc, supercilious Frank Nelson (with his famous baritone “Ye-e-e-s-s-s?”), and race track tout Sheldon Leonard (“Psst! Hey, Bud!”), and you had the basic ingredients.
A show’s plot would focus on some minor incident in the life of stage-screen-radio star Jack Benny. One week he, Mary, and Dennis would go to the race track to play the ponies. Another week Rochester would drive him to the train station for a trip to Palm Springs. Another week, Benny went Christmas shopping or stewed about an impending meeting with his show’s sponsors. Odd things happened to Benny in these commonplace situations, with disparaging commentary by the screwball characters in his cast.
A comedian playing a comedian in a show about nothing. Are you listening, Jerry Seinfeld?
Pay No Attention to That Man at Center Stage
With kooks on every hand, Jack Benny himself seemed like the normal person in the show. But not exactly . . .
Each episode revolved around Benny. He was center stage. The shady characters, uppity store clerks, band members in a constant state of carousal, wry Mexican villagers, and most of all Benny’s long-suffering household intimates—Mary, Don, Dennis and especially Rochester—all served to call attention to Benny’s eccentricities.
He was vain and vainglorious. Blue-eyed and never ageing beyond 39, he admitted freely to being a violin virtuoso and a comic genius, with leading-man looks thrown in.
He was indecisive, sometimes making a store clerk wrap, unwrap, and rewrap a purchased gift half a dozen times so that he could change the sentiments expressed on the card inside.
Most of all, he was cheap as only the rich can be. He had fabulous wealth, which he kept in an impregnable basement vault, while pathologically resisting any effort to part him with a dime. This miser image was displayed in every show and developed in almost every joke, until no American could have been unaware that Benny was a skinflint.
His stinginess was the tacit explanation for his car, a 1908 Maxwell roadster, always on the verge of death. When Rochester, as chauffeur, would suggest Jack acquire a new car, he always insisted on coaxing a few more miles out of the Maxwell. The car’s throes of anguish in its brave attempts to start were given voice by the great Mel Blanc.
Jack was a master of the long pause. Comics to this day rave about Benny’s comic timing.
Audiences, who may not have understood such subtleties, roared.
To boost ratings, Benny and rival comic Fred Allen concocted a feud, which played out on both shows over a period of almost twenty years, until Allen’s sudden death at 61 in 1956. A typical exchange:
Allen: Jack, you couldn’t ad lib a belch after a plate of Hungarian goulash.
Benny: You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.
But Benny’s writers were there, every Sunday night. And when he moved from radio to television, “audiences learned that his verbal talent was matched by his controlled repertory of dead-pan facial expressions and gesture” (Wikipedia).
A Smooth Transition
Except for that discovery, the transition was seamless. Of all shows that went from radio to TV, Benny’s had the least noticeable format change. The Jack Benny Program on television was exactly what we radio listeners had always seen in our mind’s eye.
Benny trouped on for another fifteen years on television and continued making stage and TV appearances until shortly before his death in 1974.
Audiences gradually learned that Jack’s on-air persona was a carefully constructed myth. In person he was warm and generous. And his devotion to music was real, even if his musical talent was less than stellar.
He donated a Stradivarius violin purchased in 1957 to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time of the gift, Benny said, “If it isn’t a $30,000 Strad, I’m out $120.”
Guglielmo Marconi, in 1896, figured out how to send Morse’s telegraphic code through the air, over great distances, without wires.
Microphones, also invented in the late 19th century by a series of audio pioneers, were added to the radio signal, and by the 1930s commercial radio had become an established medium. Popular programs included The Lone Ranger, Amos ’n’ Andy, and the National Barn Dance.
After supper, American families now sat around large wooden boxes warmed by the orange glow of vacuum tubes to hear concerts, dramas, comedies, mysteries, westerns, news, and quiz shows. Your New Favorite Writer remembers it, Dear Reader. When I was a boy, in the Fifties, “old-time radio” was still going strong.
But the seeds of its destruction had been sown. Somebody—a group of somebodies, actually—figured out how to transmit motion pictures using radio waves.
At the end of World War II in 1945, almost nobody owned a television set. By 1955—only ten years later—almost nobody did not own a television set.
Continuity is a recurring theme in human affairs. The first automobiles resembled horse-drawn buggies or carriages, with a combustion engine taking the place of the horse.
Likewise, the first TV sets were built like radios: lovely mahogany furniture filled with vacuum tubes, with the addition of a luminous picture tube, the front surface of which served as a screen. That one extra tube brought moving pictures of the world to us in glorious black-and-white.
Continuity of design ruled content as well. The early television shows were often just radio programs with pictures added.
Cowboys and Indians
The Lone Ranger and his “faithful Indian companion” Tonto galloped across our living room three nights a week on ABC Radio. When TV came along, they became movie stars, their cinematic exploits piped into our homes once a week on Saturday mornings.
George W. Trendle produced both the radio and television series, but other personnel changed. On radio, Brace Beemer played the Lone Ranger and John Todd played Tonto. But Beemer was only marginally photogenic, so Clayton Moore was hired to wear a mask and ride the great horse Silver, while authentic Native American Jay Silverheels took over the Tonto role. He looked the part.
Gunsmoke was another western that began on radio and switched to TV. Manly-voiced radio actor William Conrad played U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. But Conrad was inescapably rotund, so he was replaced in the TV series by tall, lanky James Arness.
What’s a Question Worth?
The radio quiz show show Take It or Leave It premiered in 1940 and rapidly became popular. Wikipedia describes its format perfectly: “Contestants selected from the audience were asked questions. After answering a question correctly, the contestant had the choice to ‘take’ the prize for that question or ‘leave it’ in favor of a chance at the next question. The first question was worth $1, and the value doubled for each successive question, up to the seventh and final question worth $64.”
Because of the show’s popularity, “That’s the sixty-four dollar question” became a widely-used catchphrase applied to any especially difficult conundrum.
When something you have created becomes a household word, use it. Take It or Leave It changed its title in 1950 to The $64 Question. The program went off the air two years later.
But in 1955, CBS revived The $64 Question as a television show, hosted by actor Hal March. The producers added three zeroes and called it The $64,000 Question. It was the first big-money game show. For that kind of dough, they made the questions hard.
For TV, they added visual gimmicks to the program. When a contestant chose the category to compete in, a lovely young lady pushed the start button on an IBM card sorter—at that time the most decorative aspect of computer technology. The machine whirred and shuffled. The lovely assistant scooped up a deck of IBM cards from the end of the sorter and delivered the deck to Hal March.
It seemed that an all-knowing machine, the computer, had spun out a graduated series of questions on the spur of the moment. A modern marvel!
There was another gimmick: Once a contestant reached the $8,000 level, he or she was sequestered in an “isolation booth,” able to hear only the quizmaster. It was show biz, folks.
The show spawned imitators: The $64,000 Challenge, Twenty-One, The Big Surprise, Dotto, and Tic-Tac-Dough—all quiz shows with tough questions and high stakes. We TV watchers could not get enough of shows like that. They made instant heroes of brainy people nobody had heard of before. People like eleven-year-old science wizard Rob Strom; polymath Teddy Nadler, a St. Louis stock clerk who made $264,000 answering questions across a broad range of categories; and everybody’s favorite, psychologist Joyce Brothers, a demure young blonde with an uncanny knowledge of boxing. All us regular folks out in TV-land were deeply impressed.
What’s an Answer Worth?
Then, in August 1958, CBS cancelled Dotto without explanation. A federal probe revealed a contestant had been given answers in advance. The G-men expanded their inquiries and found hanky-panky going on in several shows. The bloom was off the rose for big-money game shows. They all went off the air that fall and did not return until forty years later (Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, 1998).
Soon after, in 1959, the U.S. Congress launched grim hearings exposing “payola.” The Congressmen were shocked, shocked!, to learn that record companies were paying radio disc jockeys to plug their records, manufacturing smash hits by the simple expedient of playing them more often than other records. This actually might have been legal had the source of funding been disclosed; but it was not.
The quiz show scandals, followed soon by the payola scandals, were a one-two punch to the solar plexis and jaw of Middle America. Perhaps not since the Black Sox scandal of 1919 has the American public been so let down. (“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”)
It was hard to know exactly how we’d been cheated. The quiz shows, after all, were entertainment. Seeing all these smart people answer tough questions was engrossing and entertaining, even it it was rigged. After all, for years we’d been watching professional wrestling, which everybody knew was rigged. We liked it anyway.
Likewise, the smash hits produced by the payola system were great songs. We still play them on the oldies stations today. Did anybody really care how they made their way onto the air?
Still, there was something unsettling about unseen people manipulating contests we had no reason to think were not on the square. Our stubborn innocence was under attack.
I’m not sure it has ever recovered.
A Ray of Hope
Fortunately for all of us, Jack Benny remained steadfastly on the air, first on radio, then TV.
Be sure to tune in next week.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
One bright morning in 1952 I boarded the Santa Fe Chief in Streator, Illinois, and rode to Galesburg, a hundred miles away.
All by myself.
I was seven years old.
Mom had given a small tip, probably a dollar or two—equal to ten or twenty of today’s dollars—to the porter, a smiling man in a white coat and brown skin, for the extra trouble of looking after me. It was a commonplace transaction.
But for me, a train ride was an adventure.
You could take a train from almost anywhere to almost anywhere. This was near twenty years before the railroads gave up on passenger service and turned it over to a tax-funded company called Amtrak.
It was more than twenty years before computerized ticketing and reservations. To ride the train, you spoke to an agent through the metal grille of a ticket window. In small towns the ticket agent might also be the station agent and telegrapher (although by the time I was riding the train, manual telegraphy had been replaced by teletype machines).
You told the man—it was always a man—where you wanted to go, and he gave you a rectangle of pasteboard which conveyed that information to the conductor of the train. If you were going on a long trip that required changing trains, or even changing railroad lines—starting on the Milwaukee Road and ending your journey on the C.B.&Q., for example—your ticket might be a long, multipart form with two or more sections stapled together.
The conductor—a white man in a dark blue uniform—came through the car soon after the train left the station and asked for your ticket. He punched it with a hand punch to show it had been used. He kept the ticket and placed a slim paper tab in a clip above your seat. The tab was color-coded and marked to show your destination.
I wore my best clothes—of course one did that for such an important thing as a rail journey—and carried a small cardboard suitcase and my best friend, Teddy. The stuffed bear rode in the seat beside me, at no extra charge. If a grown-up sat there, Teddy could ride in my lap.
A great panoply of the Heartland blurred by the large train window at sixty miles per hour. We sped past the clotheslines, tenements, and scrapyards of Moon, Ancona, Leeds, Caton, Toluca, LaRose, Wilburn, Atlas, Holton; crossed the Illinois River and stopped for several minutes at the important town of Chillicothe; then clackety-clacked through the stockpens, car lots, and water towers of North Hampton, Edelstein, Princeville, Monica, Laura, and Williamsfield; jumped the Spoon River at Dahinda, and rolled on through the quaint backyards and byways of Appleton, Knoxville, and East Galesburg, to stop at Galesburg, where I got off and was met by Grandma Sommers, with her big old Hudson sedan.
(Confession time, Dear Reader. My brain does not contain the full litany of railside towns after seventy years. I cheated by looking at an old railroad map.)
The smiling porter, who had checked my well-being from time to time during the two-hour trip, handed me down the passenger coach steps onto the platform, where Grandma waited. She and I walked through the station—or, as we called it, the depot—on the west side of North Broad at Water Street.
Where you left the passenger waiting room there stood a gum machine. You could put in two of Grandma’s pennies and choose among four flavors of Chiclets. Down a little chute they slid, two pieces of hard-shell chewing gum in a bright-colored cellophane packet. Tutti-frutti was the best flavor, and its packet was peach-colored, not unlike Tennessee Avenue on a Monopoly board.
That color, halfway between orange and pink, marks in my mind not only tutti-frutti Chiclets and Tennessee Avenue, but also Tuesday, my favorite day of the week. For no reason I can think of, Tuesday is peachy in color.
That may be peculiar to me. If you don’t like it, Fair Reader, you’re free to paint your Tuesdays a different color. Go ahead, I dare you.
The grand exploit of soloing by rail into the wilds of western Illinois, like most of my youthful pleasures, is denied to young people now. Today, minors under twelve may not ride unaccompanied on Amtrak, and those of twelve years and older may do so only subject to numerous regulations.
In the safe world of my childhood, we did not think strangers were likely to be perverts. It was unspoken and universal that adults would protect children. Adults trusted other adults to safeguard their children; and we who were children believed that adults—even the legions of grouchy ones—would watch over us if need be.
Others may remember things differently. Perhaps my memory wears rose-colored glasses. But those growing old along with me can testify that in those days, though we were often fussy and formal, sometimes about trivial things, we were at the same time more relaxed and confident in the major departments of life.
Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. Galesburg, however, is still served by Amtrak. But Amtrak rides the old Burlington main line, now owned by the mega-railroad company called Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).
That means you can go home again, but you get off the train at a different station. The old Santa Fe main line tracks still run just north of Water Street, owned and operated by that same Burrlington Northern Santa Fe. But that line is traveled only by freight trains. The old depot that had the Chiclets machine is long since demolished.
That stately old depot, and the way of life it embodied, are now gone with the wind, as Margaret Mitchell might say. They are with the snows of yesteryear, per François Villon.
No matter. Those trains and stations and clackety-clack journeys still exist in memory . . . for a few years yet.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois