A mid-century modern take on the 21st Century.

Cuba: Breaking and Following All the Old School Rules

My first visit to the island of lost and found dreams


Cuba: Island of Dreams Lost and Found – Part I

An email from a friend of a friends announced a trip to Cuba as part of a group I knew nothing about: the Tuskeegee Veterinary Medical Alumni Association.  Of course, Tuskeegee University in Alabama — founded in 1881, with the legendary Dr. Booker T. Washington as its first president — has incomparable Old School Rules bona fides, so I was glad to learn that I could join TVMAA as an affiliate member and participate in their 2011 Scientific Conference.  It was an chance to learn from a brand new group of people, removing yet another degree of separation between myself and the rest of humanity.  The bonus was a visit to a place that’s been on my Bucket List for over 40 years.

We flew direct to Havana from Miami, Florida on a charter flight arranged by InsightCuba, the leading provider of legal people-to-people travel to Cuba.  After changing the Euros I’d purchased in the U.S. into the CUC currency that is the only legal tender for foreigners on the island — giving new meaning to the exclamation “green go!” and the designation once reserved for unwelcome Americans: gringo — I rolled my bag through the throng of families greeting relatives on arriving flights, toward the two buses waiting for the TVMAA group.   Before boarding, I took a snapshot of the first thing I saw:This  Old School Rules classic mural of Che Guevara, is one of hundreds of images of the dashing, brilliant young hero of the Revolution found at literally every turn in Havana.  I was reminded of the common thread that linked New World Africans throughout the Americas back in the day, when civil rights in the U.S. appeared to break the mold of cloaked and ugly secrets, challenging the notion expressed by the Last Poets, that “the Revolution will not be televised”.  In the case of Cuba, the Last Poets were right.  That’s the good news and the bad news.  Experiencing first-hand — or at least on “live” TV — the befores, durings and afters of everyday people saying “no” to governance that doesn’t serve them, is valuable.  Whether we understand the problems, agree with the solutions, recognize the leadership, speak the language — or not — it is important to know what Revolution means, because it’s been happening since prehistoric times, and is the reason we have Democracy.

Revolution is a dream that never dies.  It wakes the dreamer — sometimes gently, sometimes fitfully, to action or just to observation — and returns to spur the slumbering mind whenever it is needed.  Cuba is still living a dream.  My small glimpse of its Revolution will not be televised, but it will be blogged about, because revolution is without question one of our Old School Rules.

Caught at the crossroads

The plan was that I’d continue to write about Walter Reed.  It seemed simple enough, at least in my mind, where there are always tea and crumpets being served to little girls in dresses with crinoline underskirts that don’t itch and white socks that don’t get mysteriously pulled down at the heel into perfect patent leather Mary Janes.

Perfection is the problem.  There is no such state in the past, present or future, no matter what they taught us in grammar school.  Of course, the idea can be embraced that what is past is, in fact, as close to perfect as anything can be, since there is no do-over possible.  The further away we travel from our past, the less we can even see it with 20/20 vision, if we ever could.  It just is.  Which is probably why some folks say it’s better to “claim progress, rather than perfection.”

My imperfect memories kept flooding in — mostly, but not exclusively about Walter Reed Hospital — and I decided to augment them with photos from a collection waaaaay too big to manage.  Photos, I figure, are evidence that something actually happened more or less the way I recalled it.  My good friend Wolfie the cameraman says, “Just keep shooting, and the story will tell itself.”  He says writers are always trying to create something that hasn’t happened yet, and photographers just keep clicking or rolling away until it does.  Hmmm.

I’ve spent the past two days looking for a picture of my mother in her long white gloves and red satin gown, getting ready for the Inaugural Ball of 1961, the one Daddy missed because of his first heart attack.   I’ve given up, and accepted the likelihood that it won’t turn up until I stop hunting for it.  What I did find was evidence that the doctors at Walter Reed kept Daddy alive and active despite four more cardiac episodes over the next decade.   The next Inaugural Ball was for Lyndon Johnson and his veep Hubert Horatio Humphrey (don’t you just love the alliteration in that name!) in 1965.  Daddy was once again asked to serve in the President’s Honor Guard, where he wore this purple ribbon:

The best thing about that ball is that I got to go.  My mother, trying to finish up her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, was in Philadelphia for a seminar.  I wore a silk gown printed with a zillion bright colors like a stained glass window.  It appealed to the hippie in me, and satisfied my father’s ultimatum that no woman in his house would wear bangs or black until he was gone.

Here’s me and the Colonel, looking ceremonial:


Which reminds me, the ceremonies at Walter Reed have been going on all day, and it’s time for me to bite the proverbial bullet and go say goodbye.

Thanks for reading.  Don’t forget to count your blessings.  Reading and Counting Your Blessings are Old School Rules!


Walter Reed: My Family Doctor

Changes at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center site in northwest Washington, D.C., will be interesting to watch.  Retail is in its future, among other things, and as an avid shopper, I guess that’s a good thing.  But WRAMC holds a special place in my heart and memory, and even the prospect of more retail therapy within walking distance pales by comparison to that ancient nostalgia.  Maybe its time to blog about it and let it go, along with the place it was born.

Back in August of 2005, the Department of Defense proposed replacing Walter Reed – the 113-acre campus of the only U.S. armed forces medical center located in the District of Columbia – with a new-and-improved, more cost effective center on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  Given crises in budget, employment, health care, research and other issues of national importance, it’s good to know that the new and expanded medical center plans to address those matters.  I hope that there will be plenty of jobs to go around at the new center, and also that taking such a large hospital out of the mix in D.C. won’t create a deficit in health care or employment for my city’s residents.

The hospital was named for Maj. Walter Reed, M.D., a young U.S. Army surgeon from Virginia (his record as the youngest UVA student to receive an M.D. – at age 17 – has never been broken).  Dr. Reed’s research on yellow fever changed the course of medical and military history.  The facility, originally named Walter Reed General Hospital, opened in May 1909, seven years after Dr. Reed’s death.

After more than a century of service, Walter Reed as we know it will close, on Wednesday, July 27, 2011.  Its swan song is a Doobie Brothers concert on the lawn.  I plan to be at the closing-day ceremony.  It will be my first time at a Doobie Brothers show, and I’m trying to work up an appetite for “Listen to the Music” and “Black Water.”  I would have preferred the Marine Corps jazz band, but I guess the Doobie Brothers have greater appeal for the troops.

My hope is that they’ll also find someone who can blow “Taps” on a non-electric bugle.  For me, “Taps” is the right way to say goodbye to Walter Reed.  Both my parents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and I associate that plaintive tune with saying goodbye to family members.  I visit their grave a couple of times a year, braving the tourists looking at Kennedy’s eternal flame, the Tomb of the Unknowns or Civil War gravestones.  But Arlington isn’t Walter Reed.  Long before it occurred to me that I would one day wear black to that high hill, Walter Reed was part of our family.  Like all families, there were relationships among us, and each of us had our own relationship to Walter Reed Hospital.

For the next couple of blogs, I’ll be writing about those stories as I recall them.  Today’s OldSchoolRules are:  “Honor thy father and thy mother,” and “Don’t regret the past, nor close the door on it.”

Thanks for reading… keep in touch.

Here and Hereafter: Sherwood Schwartz, 94

People come and go. Today we note the passing of Sherwood Schwartz, creator/producer of “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch.” Those who watched these extremely popular television series — “Gilligan” was a mid-60s slapschtick hit; “The Brady Bunch” a corny family show that ran five seasons until 1974 — will appreciate the Washington Post obit that refers to Schwartz as “TV’s master of memorable cheese.” As one who avoided both shows like the plague, I am yet moved by how Mr. Schwartz described the earlier series, set in a time-warped imaginary place he called a “social microcosm”:

“I knew that by assembling seven different people and forcing them to live together, the show would have great philosophical implications.” Mr. Schwartz compared the “Gilligan’s Island” experience to what would “eventually” happen in the Middle East, when “the Israelis are going to have to live with the Arabs.”

Kudos to Sherwood Schwartz for such powerfully cockeyed, yet sincere optimism. In my world, Gilligan, the Skipper, Ginger, Mary Ann, the Professor and the millionaire couple played by Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer are, in a word, one person, living in a 7 bodies, in a time that now seems tinted by a rather sweet, uncomplicated homogeneity. The real world is far more colorful, challenging and dangerous. I wish there had been Asian Americans on the Island, or people struggling with disabilities; I wish the Brady kids had played with African American kids, or had to compete with Muslim or Hispanic youth for those jobs they seemed to get so easily. Yet, for what it’s worth, the life’s work of Sherwood Schwartz — who was born in Passaic NJ in 1916 and died in Los Angeles CA on July 12, 2011 — expressed one of the most important Old School Rules: let’s try to get along.

No time. No weather. No fair.

My first experience with dialing — yes, folks, rotary dialing — a telephone number was when I was about 5.  My parents taught me how to call a) the Operator, for emergencies and long distance, by dialing the ‘0’ (zero); b) the correct time, at TIme 4-2525; and the weather forecast, at WEather 6-1212.  That was in the mid 1950s, when Washington DC was a much smaller, more neighborly place, despite plenty of Old School Rules against loving thy neighbor.

The time and the weather became, for me, an unchanging, daily reality check.  The familiar voice at TI 4-2525 would say, “At the tone, the time will be _____ and ___ seconds… beep.”  The message was repeated every 10 seconds, just like … well … clockwork (what else could I say?).

The weather lady at WE 6-1212 would say, “This is the latest weather forecast for Washington and vicinity.”  It was based on her report in the evening, after dinner, that we would decide what to wear to school the next day; the following morning I’d check back to make certain nothing had changed dramatically enough to change my wardrobe choices.  In the winter, if it snowed, the call was followed up by listening intently to the voices of Harden & Weaver coming from my parents’ radio, to learn whether the schools were closed.

As far as I know, those calls weren’t charged, and I can’t remember an ad tag of any kind.  The local Bell phone company was C&P Telephone, named after one of DC’s Rivers, the Potomac, and the Chesapeake Bay into which it flows to before dissolving into the Atlantic Ocean.  I don’t know why the Anacostia River didn’t get its due — I think Anacostia and Potomac sounds just fine, even if the monogram might be confused with that of a grocery store chain– but I do know that sometime in the 1980s, C&P got swallowed up by a company that later morphed into Verizon.

I recall it had something to do with “Ma” Bell’s children growing up and leaving home to prevent monopolies, but if you ask me, Verizon is pretty monopolistic, and, unlike C&P, not very user-friendly, as phone companies go.  I receive bills, ads, and offers for the ever-popular “bundling” of services for my land-line, cell phone and internet.  They take plenty of credit — adding a “welcome to…”, “thank you for calling…”, or “brought to you by…” Verizon branding that took up a few seconds of my time before I could hear what time it was or whether it would be partly cloudy with a chance of rain.

Verizon’s billing discrepancies — which somehow always end in their favor, not mine — are handled, not by a local person with a high school education learning and using valuable skills to earn a decent living while performing a valuable public service, but by someone in Mumbai or Delhi, who will probably build a resume and savings account in India that will support relocation to a city near you.  Mind you, I don’t fault anyone from seizing the opportunity to work for the yankee dollar, but until I see a reversal of fortunes for the many hard-working Americans who are un- or under-employed, I won’t accept calls from places I don’t know anyone.

I still have — in it’s original envelope a shiny dime encased in a card with an apology from C&P for the 10 cents I lost in a public phone. Yep, a public phone, in a booth that actually got cleaned on a regular basis (windows polished, receiver wiped down, cigarette butts swept up) by — you guessed it — a local person with a j-o-b.  You could find one on most corners of downtown, and several conveniently placed in the outlying neighborhoods of DC.  They were, in some ways, a predecessor of the ubiquitous cell phone, only you couldn’t get a ticket for using one, unless you drove into it.

  • A real, working phone booth in West Virginia.

    Phone booths were also known as the place Clark Kent changed into his cape and became Superman.

    It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s a suited reporter turning into a caped crusader!

    One of the last booths in DC was on the top floor of what is now the John A. Wilson District Building.  It was left there, in the cramped and noisy press room, by the Evening Star, after that daily’s demise.  It continued to work until it’s removal when the building was renovated a decade or so ago.  And let’s not forget some wonderful idioms related to the public phone:  snitching was “dropping a dime” on someone; and my father would answer the phone at his office, after his secretary Miss Vickeroy announced my call, with, “It’s your dime, start talking.”

    I could recount problems I and others have with the current phone company, but it wouldn’t make them any less omnipotent, nor would it bring back the thousands of jobs that left the US or the sounds of ringing, dialing and on-off busy signal beeping that plays in my mind’s ear.  The booths are virtually extinct today, a fact that may affect lots of powerless customers and former employees,  and explain the person standing next to you talking to an invisible friend, or texting her BFF’s old BF; but even that is something I can adjust to.

    The problem I’m struggling with is more personal.  It’s about unnecessary change for the sake of maximized profits.  For years, my childhood friend Laurel has bemoaned the fact that telephone prefixes no longer have names.  When we were growing up, there were HObart 2 people, and RAndolph 6 (and later RA 3); there were TUckermans (2) and TAylors (9) and DUponts (6) and FEderals (3 in Georgetown, 6 elsewhere).  You knew that a LAwrence (6) was in Northeast, and a LIncoln (4-1212) would get you a cab.

    When I moved about 18 months ago, I was able to get the same phone number that my family had for 50 years, which was, I understand, a virtually impossible feat (no, I won’t tell you how I managed to keep the number out of rotation for the five years between selling my family house and returning to a neighborhood that uses the same phone prefix; a girl has to have some secrets, after all).

    I’ve gotten used to remembering a string of numbers with no names, and using the @ sign for something other than a money transaction.  I’ve gotten used to having letters dissed with the label “snail mail,” and adhesive stamps replacing the ones you got to lick — remember writing SWAK (sealed with a kiss) on the back of an envelope, long before texting reduced a million emotions and messages to initials?

    But the fact is I miss the Old School Rules regarding communicating, in which a “face time” visit was better than a phone call, and a letter was something one looked forward to receiving and answering, with correctly spelled and carefully thought out words, hand-written, preferably in Shaeffer Blue-Black ink (after all, this was when every pupil was graded on Penmanship, which carried at least as much weight as Deportment on a report card).

    A personal note will always mean more to me than an “emailed”, “texted,” “facebooked” or “tweeted” message.  And the idea of people “dating” someone they only know as a cyberspatial snapshot with a “profile” gives me the willies.  I learned to write because I had to send thank-you notes for every holiday or birthday gift received from a relative or family friend, before I could enjoy using, eating, playing with or wearing the present.  I had to express, in my own words, what the gift and the sender meant to me.  I had to follow the Old School Rules that say, “It’s the thought that counts,” by thinking about words and how to use them.  It wasn’t until decades later that I realized technology had taken away my ability to pause and use restraint of pen and tongue, in exchange for a “send” button I could hit now and regret later.

    But what I’m missing now, albeit a couple of months ahead of time, is the result of a New School Rules travesty — the profits-before-people rule that says, “the one with the gold makes the rules” instead of the Golden Rule — of epic proportions.  Okay, maybe not epic; it’s not the end of the world, but it certainly changes mine for the worse.

    It has been addressed by only one person I know of.  Bless his heart, Washington Post local columnist John Kelly feels as cheated as I do by the announcement that now precedes the WE6 and TI4 services we’ve been able to count on for more than half a century.  Here’s what we now get, instead of the information we’ve grown accustomed to getting from our phone (in a grouchy old man’s voice):

    “Effective June 1st, 2011, Verizon will no longer offer time of day and weather forecast services.” Bummer.  I hope the folks that made this awful decision live the rest of their days under the weather, in an endless, parade-drenching winter where “have a nice day” never happens and there are no silver linings … just clouds.  No time?  No weather?  No fair!

    Day One

    This is my first blog.  Thanks for visiting.  It’s taken me forever to get here, for a few reasons.

    First, there’s this technology stuff.  I’m old school — pencil and paper and maybe a box of crayons with enough colors to include “Flesh,” which I found visually unappetizing as it was mildly offensive.  I mean, who has flesh that color?  Really?  But the truth is, I like to type, too.  There’s something hypnotic about letters skimming along, turning into words, while I’m not even looking at the fingers pushing buttons on my keyboard. 

    I took typing in junior high school.  To do it, I had to drop Latin — which automatically bounced me out of the  Honors track — jump over College Preparatory and find my spot in Basic.  It was, in retrospect, one of the best moves I ever made, among countless moves.  I got to meet people I might never have known, and my world expanded instantly to include folks I might never have talked to, who took typing, just like me.   Typing served me well for years.  I remember the day I came to work and found a brand new IBM Selectric on my desk, and thought I’d arrived in Secretary’s Heaven, magically bestowed with the wings of an Administrative Assistant, never to call myself a Secretary again.

    Years later, someone cautioned me, “If you want to be considered for a professional position, you’d better take typing off your resume.”  It was a terrifying move that worked; yet, when asked what I needed by my first secretary, my first requisition included two Selectrics — one for her, one for me.

    But I never really figured out what those dots between keyboarding and computers were all about.  So, although I can type this blog at close to 75 w.p.m. without using spellcheck — I learned to spell before I learned to type — I have no idea what most of the language invented since computers means.  But, hey!  Old school rules include, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  So, this is my first try at this blogging stuff.

    Enough for now… See ya later, alligator… and don’t forget to count your blessings.