Sunday, August 5, 2018

From the Beginning to the START

I was 15 years old and had an obsession with mother nature.  I had spent some 2 1/2 years bird-watching.  I recorded the date and location of every species I had spotted. I was so thorough in my recorded observations that LSU's Life Sciences Dept head  designated me a qualified Boy Scout BIRD STUDY merit badge counselor, the youngest on record.

My father was a fancier of Flemish Giant rabbits. In our backyard was some 1000+ square feet of rabbit hutches that housed these giant brown rabbits.  They weren't that edible, but he sold some 2 - 3 per week.  People simply were fascinated with these huge bunnies.  

One day while biking back home from a dental appointment I witnessed a small commotion on the side of the road.  I was traveling along Seven Oaks Ave in Baton Rouge next to Goodwood Park. There was a dry ditch and I saw some roots moving along the wall of this ditch.  I stopped, got off my bike to gain closer inspection and discovered an adolescent squirrel attempting to free himself from this tangle of roots.

Well, being the animal humanitarian that I fancied myself as, I reached into this tangle of roots and proceeded to free him. His freedom costs me.  He managed to get his teeth into my right forefinger knuckle. At this point I decided the little boogger was going to go home with me.  I hung on to him until I got home (about 1 1/2 miles). 

Remembering that Dad had a couple of empty rabbit cages I put him into one.  Poor thing frantically tried to find an exit, but was unsuccessful. I supplied him a water bowl and a food bowl. My father was a tile contractor and used heavy porcelain toilet paper dispensers as water and feed bowls. 

When I inspected his food bowl at the end of his second day of capture, I was distressed to see that he had not eaten any of his food.  Dad said not to worry.  He'll settle in and start eating in a day or two.  He was right. The next day his bowl was empty. My Dad asked if I had named him. I thought for a moment and came up with a real winner: "Squirrely".

Squirrely afforded me a distraction from a broken heart.  Several days prior to my Squirrely rescue I was slowly biking down Audubon Av when this late model Mercury pulled along beside me.  The electric window opened and Bernie Lee said "Hi Jerry".  She was (or rather HAD been) my girl friend.  Driving the car was Warren who I never did like and now I liked even less. Not wanting to appear distraught or jealous I merely returned the greeting with "Hi".  She then said "See ya", then closed the window and Warren spun out burning rubber like the asshole everyone knew him to be.  It was readily obvious that Bernie simply wanted to show me my competition. But it hurt nonetheless. So I vowed then and there that he would no longer be competition because she was no longer my girl.

I went home deciding not to show any emotion or clues that I had been hurt. I would simply act like everything was just fine. When I went in the house I greeted my Mom and Dad, then proceeded to the bathroom. Upon leaving the bathroom I went into the kitchen and my Mom asked "Are you alright?" I said "Yes, why?" "Because you don't look very happy."  Then my Dad chimed in with "Girl troubles?" Then at that point I had to ask: "Does it show that much?" I was then greeted with the classic platitude "Remember, son, there are plenty of fish in the ocean." Wow, did that really perk me up.  I excused myself, went to my room and proceeded to suffer in silence. Since finding out that there were plenty of fish in the ocean, I vowed to escape this funk that I was in, and forget about Bernie Lee and get on with my many other diversions. Wasn't easy, but I knew I would never be dating her again.  And I didn't.

The squirrel bite on my forefinger afforded me an opportunity to skip a few days of accordion band practice.  Yep, you read it right ... accordion band.  Several months earlier my parents had fallen prey to a scam (or what appeared to be a scam).  Sacred Heart elementary school's principal had succumbed to this marketing ploy to gain the attention of willing /and gullible parents. Sacred Heart had now become the not-so-proud sponsor of an accordion band.  WOW!  Parents merely had to purchase a basic 12-base accordion and their off-springs could then make mom and pop proud (hmmm).  "Our child is a member of the Sacred Heart accordion band."  Oooh oooh!, can't wait! 

Part of the "come-on" was the inclusion of weekly band practices conducted by a member of the accordion-marketing company. And of course inclusion in the band was itself not without a fee. I wanted OUT!  The band sessions never included basics like learning to read music scores or chording or harmonizing.  We "dazzled" our parent audiences with bland, melody lines of nursery pieces that turned shrugging heads to one another producing a silent chorus of "What the hell is this all about?"

I wanted OUT!  I told my parents I wanted OUT.  But they told me to be patient and give it time.  "TIME FOR WHAT?! JUST CONTINUED EMBARRASSMENT? I'D JUST AS SOON TAKE PIANO LESSONS."

Well, those were the magic words .. PIANO LESSONS.  They went out and purchased a used upright piano and hired Mr. Julius Leon, an itinerant piano instructor, to come to our home once a week to provide one hour of piano lessons. Mr. Leon was very eccentric; he didn't drive nor did he own a car.  But he was very familiar with the City Bus Line and its route schedules. When the weather was cold, Mr. Leon would don huge fur-lined and fur-covered mittens which were each equal in size to a large waffle griddle. 

Then on TV one evening there appeared the Polish American classical pianist, Arthur (Artur) Rubinstein in concert with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  The selection was Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor.  OH MY GOD! His performance was pure perfection.  I was mesmerized.  I said to my parents that I had to have a copy of that recording if it was available and also a copy of the score.  They were delighted that I had taken such an interest in learning piano and within a week I had a 33 rpm LP recording and within 2 weeks they had managed to find a copy of the orchestral score. 

I listened and re-listened to the recording until it was beginning to show wear.  I had timed the concerto from start to finish (34 minutes and 39 seconds).  I was in love with Grieg's piano concerto but embarrassed that I knew NOTHING about reading music scores much less FULL BLOWN orchestral scores.  So the score was of little value at that time.

I was now entering LSU and chose music as my minor.  I didn't want to take any more piano lessons because I had managed to master keyboarding with the aid of Grieg's concerto. I enrolled in music theory where I dedicated myself to scoring and reading music.  I hated having to admit that I could never learn to "sight-read" scores, but my keyboarding mastery continued to improve.  Because I had managed to learn the first movement of the Grieg concerto, I was able to adapt classical styling to my rapidly evolving ability to play by ear.

Back in the mid and early 50s popular music was primarily of the easy listening genre which would explain why I had trouble sight-reading scores.  Most of the scoring arrangements for popular music were very basic and elementary and I preferred classical styling arrangements (born of my Grieg keyboarding mastery).  Some of the popular songs of that era for which I created piano arrangements were "Autumn Leaves", "Dancing in the Dark", "Unchained Melody", "Tenderly", "La Vie En Rose", "Ebb Tide" and many others of that ilk.

Anyhow, I was in hog's heaven. Not only was I wowwing people with my piano artistry, my parents had bought me a used Studebaker for my transportation to LSU. I would no longer need to make that  trip on my single speed bike AND I was no longer taking piano lessons from Mr. Leon.  

I was agreeing to perform at various public and private functions (United Way fund raisers, Rotary Club meetings, etc.). Miss Baton Rouge and Miss Louisiana contest entrants would book me for their piano accompaniment needs. And I would spend my noon hours
performing on the Concert Grand piano that had been positioned on the Dramatic Arts building stage for upcoming events. By 1 pm the theater seating would be nearly full.  I was on a golden ego trip.... until ....

...until the day Squirrely escaped. I was devastated. He had managed to patiently take advantage of a small tear that had formed in his cage area. He obviously pulled at that opening over a period of several months until he was able to get through it. I was heartbroken.  He and I had bonded (at least I thought we had) and I couldn't understand why he would leave and not respond to my coaxing efforts.  My dad said he wanted his freedom, that he loved me, but loved freedom more, it was part of his natural instinct.

One day after accustoming myself to his absence I heard a chirping in the yard.  I looked up and perched on a limb high in our oak tree was Squirrely.  He was talking to me.  I tried to coax him down, but he wouldn't budge.  My dad came out and said he could get him down.  I asked "How?"  I owned a Benjamin pump pellet rifle and he said he will just graze him and ..." But I chimed in with "NO, NO, just let him go" But dad was confident he could just stun him and I would only have to catch him when he fell.  I still protested, but dad took aim and I did catch Squirrely, but sadly the shot was an inch off and Squirrely was dead.  I didn't chastise my dad for taking the shot, but he felt terrible.  I tearfully tried to ameliorate his guilt.  But his spirits could not be lifted. My own grief at the loss of Squirrely then transformed into compassion for the quilt my dad was suffering.

I got over the loss of squirrely and continued to accept piano performance engagements until Radio station WIBR's Raving Dave Davidson heard of my piano mastery and asked if I would come to the station on Saturday mornings between 9 and 11 and perform live for his listening audience.  I was delighted to oblige him.  I was in my late teens and Dave was part of a committee that created "Teen Town Rally".  In its infancy I managed to perform at Teen Town until WBRZ  produced  the "HIT or MISS" program. I became a part of HorM and my life changed once again.

Meanwhile my Dad, still grieving over his failed attempt to save my precious Squirrely, asked me one day to join him in the backyard.  He had a surprise for me.  I escorted him behind his business workshop/garage and he presented me with a large chicken wired cage that held a dozen pigeons.  Pigeons?! PIGEONS!? Why pigeons?  He said that since Squirrely was no longer with us, I would probably enjoy raising pigeons. Oh my God!  I didn't have the heart to tell him how desperately UNinterested I was in raising pigeons, so I feigned excitement. His conscience was now clear, but now I had to learn to care for pigeons. Yuck!

Because I felt a need to resume piano lessons, but at a more advanced level than I was getting from Mr. Leon, my parents once again came through.

They signed me up with the son of the chief justice of the supreme court of Costa Rica ... LSU's one and only Castro Carazo who was hired by Governor Huey Long in the 30s to be LSU's Band director/composer.  Carazo composed "Every Man a King" (words by Huey Long), "Louisiana, My Home Sweet Home" and the "LSU Fight Song"

Anyway, when Dr. Carazo learned of my keyboarding  skill, he would pop out his violin and I would accompany him on current popular pieces. We would simply engage in a 2 piece combo session ... much fun.  But when my parents learned that my lessons consisted only of accommodating Carazo's hunger for violin accompaniment, my lessons were terminated.

While I was disappointed in this termination, I got over it because WBRZ's HIT or MISS had brought me on as a regular weekly performer and this "gig" along with my part-time employment at LSU's Hill Memorial Library AND my p.t. Proof Machine job at City National Bank kept me at a pretty comfortable income level while a full-time LSU student.

Though I had a car for school, I still used my old brown single speed bike for nature/bird watching excursions. One day while bird-watching in the "100 acre wood" (reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh) near the intersection of Seven Oaks Ave and Thibodeaux St I once again found myself succumbing to curiosity about some movement in a bush.  I delicately opened a gap in the bush and there, looking up at me with very soulful eyes was this adolescent Raccoon.  He showed no fear and appeared to be inviting my friendship.

After spending some 10 to 20 minutes sweet-talking him, I sensed that he would probably allow me to pet him.  I slowly reached down and gingerly stroked his back. He was receptive.  After another 10 or so minutes I reached down, lifted him up, cradled him in my right arm, mounted my old single speed bike and rode home with him.  He never once attempted to squirm loose unlike my Squirrely experience several years earlier.

Still cradling him on my right shoulder I arrived home and  proceeded over to the rabbit hutches, but upon passing by the pigeon pin I decided instead to let him share the cage with the pigeons.  I named him Coony ... of course.  As I entered the pigeon pin, Coony slipped and as he fell he grabbed my neck to prevent his fall.  His sharp claws ripped through my neck as he managed to thwart his fall.  I nonetheless released him with the pigeons.  Coony seemed quite at home with his new feathered friends though it appeared that the pigeons were not nearly as  receptive. 

As I watched this bonding attempt between Coony and the pigeons, I became re-aware of my neck injury.  I placed my hand on the affected area and realized I was bleeding rather profusely.  I went in the house and my Mom asked what happened.  I told her and she said "You're going to the doctor."  I was given a Tetanus shot, bandaged and sent on my way.

It was dark when we got home, so I didn't check on my "new" friends until the following morning. 

When I got to the pigeon pin, I was greeted with Coony lying contentedly in a corner while pigeon feathers continued to float all around. All were dead and 2 or 3 had obviously served as Coony's evening meal or maybe his early morning breakfast.

Expecting my Dad to come unglued once greeted with this mess, I was quite surprised at his indifference. He admitted that he realized that the pigeon idea was not one of his better contributions to his attempt to satisfy my yearning to care for nature's critters.  After breathing a sigh of relief I was able with a clear conscience to begin cleaning and repairing what had now become Coony's living quarters.

My father was a tile contractor and Coony's new "residence" was adjacent to my Dad's workshop / storage facility. Coony would not likely escape since his adjacency was a concrete block wall...... or so I thought.

My mother said I had too many hobbies and special interests.  That I needed to eliminate some of these for the betterment of those I truly preferred to concentrate on.  I essentially told her "Easier said than done, Mom.  I love all of these hobbies.  I love working out at Alvin Roy's, I love HIT OR MISS, I love my library job, my bank job, I love school, I love my piano adventures, I love my animals.  I just don't want to give any of this stuff up."  My mom said she understood, but simply asked that I try to better manage my time.  This she was right about.  I was spread thin and truly needed to better organize myself. 

She reminded me of the time some 3 or 4 years earlier when no one was home and I had answered the phone. The calling party was the sister of my late step grandfather, Mr. Morrison. None of us had known his first name because he was simply known to all the family as "Mr Morrison".  Anyhow Mr Morrison had passed away a couple of years earlier and his sister (calling from Kittanning, PA) simply wanted to inform everyone that her and Mr Morrison's mother had just passed away.  I thanked her for the call and said that I would let everyone know.  

My mother reminded me that I was just as busy and disorganized back then as I still was today.

Anyhow a couple of weeks after speaking to Mr. Morrison's sister my parents decided to have everyone over for Sunday dinner.  The conversation was quite general until my grandmother said "I wonder how Ms Morrison is getting along.  She's been ill and I haven't heard anything about her condition lately." I felt the blood drain from my head and I blurted out: "She's dead".  WHAT!? My mother asked "Jerry, how do you know this?" I explained how I answered the phone 2 weeks prior when Mr. Morrison's sister called and asked me to tell everyone, but I forgot.  My grandmother gasped with "Oh my God, they must think we're awful."  I was the one who felt awful.

Anyway, mom's reminder of this serious memory lapse further convinced me that she was right.  I had to better organize my time and activities.

Then some 2 weeks later late one night we heard a crashing noise coming from Dad's workshop. All three of us rushed outside. Dad, holding his Colt 45, unlocked the workshop.  He told us to stay out until he could determine what was happening. We then heard another crashing sound. Dad came out cursing a blue streak. "That damn coon has made its way into the shop and the little shit has knocked down 2 boxes of Italian ceramic tile." I knew how valuable this Italian Ceramic tile collection was.  These boxes were leftover from his contract job some 13-14 years earlier when he completed the now famous bell dome atop Baton Rouge's Sacred Heart Church, a masterful undertaking that received national wide acclaim.

Now for the father/son counseling: "If you have to stay out here all night I expect you to do something with that little shit, either get rid of him or fix his pin so he CANNOT repeat this. I expect you to take care of this TONIGHT."

Coony was gone, nowhere to be found. But I had my marching orders.  I did work on the problem for about 2 hours until I was confident that Coony, wherever he was, would NOT be able to regain entry into the workshop.

Over the next year or 2 I busied myself with the HIT OR MISS program along with my intern work with WBRZ and I put aside my passion for nature.  I guess I was "growing up". I had my appendix removed, then went to work for the Louisiana Division of Employment Security (today's LaWorks). I was an Employment Interviewer, a position which would prove quite fateful resulting in the START of my life.

Interviewing candidates for employment was very routine until the day when I went up to the reception desk to pick up a routing slip with the name of the next job seeker candidate and I called out "Gloria Gartman?"  This gorgeous and sexy young lady (she was 19) came forward and, well you might say "... the rest is story".  Gloria became the START to the rest of my life.  I was cast in the role of Stanley in STREETCAR NAME DESIRE at the BATON ROUGE LITTLE THEATRE AND eleven months later we were married and 10 months after that ... bam -- our first child.   Then In 1960 another big streak of good luck:  My introduction into the world of film making.

Oh, I nearly forgot.  Coony did return, but I put him in my car and returned him to the 100 acre wood.  Dad thanked me.


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