My Pepper Moment

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My Pepper Moment


Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the Beatles (1967), encountered 1967

 Buy it here[1] | Lyrics here | See it here[2] | Sheet music here

             Graduation.  Commencement.  Moving on.  All hopeful, terrifying words.  You hope and expect that wherever you’re headed improves on the world you’re leaving behind, and you’re terrified that you’ll wish later on that you could go back.  You’re being expelled as though from a womb.  The next stage, you know, is likely to put you and your parents in different places, in different households.

            It has to happen.  You and your parents have to disentangle.  They need to have their lives be more about them, just as you need to have your life be more about you.  On both sides, the “us” of your family identity needs dialing back.

            Not All About Me

            Formally, the date of my own graduation/expulsion was Friday, June 9, 1967.  Actually, the process had begun back on Sunday, May 14 when my stepdad had come down with violent abdominal pains.  Over the next couple of weeks, much of them spent in the hospital, he was diagnosed with diverticulitis, a disease of the bowel.  He would have to undergo a major resection of the bowel three days before my graduation.  His life was going to be more about him at this point, however I felt about it.  I might be taking finals, going to honors assemblies and proms and such, experiencing the highs and lows of this inflection in my life; he wasn’t going to be there in my cheering section. 

            And I wasn’t going to be available much to support him, either, I was furiously busy, as absorbed in this final spasm of high school life and my other amusements as he doubtless was with his own uncooperative guts. 

            This proved to be a moment of transition for him as well.  Up till that point, one would have described him as in decent health for someone with his generation’s standard bad habits (born in 1922): smoking, drinking, overeating.  He’d had a health crisis with scarlet fever a couple of decades back; he’d done pretty well since then.  And he would have stretches of reasonable fitness afterwards.  But serious bad stuff kept menacing him from this point onward.  This diverticulitis attack was the moment when the Reaper started sizing him up – and never looked away for long after that.  My stepdad kept saying that he thought he’d live to an old age, but be sick the whole time.  The prediction was based on grim experiences that began here.[3]

            Graduation Day

           It’s hard to recall how bad it actually was, having him and by extension my mom subtracted from my affairs at that moment.  The one place I do remember really missing him was at the graduation itself – and having the feeling that my mom was just going through the motions of being there.  Our parish priest had driven her to the graduation direct from the hospital.  There was no one to take pictures (never a skill of my mom’s); I only have this one from the newspaper.  (I’m the figure on the extreme left of the top row.)

            That was one of the reasons the ceremony itself felt rather empty to me.  Another was knowing that we were leaving almost nothing behind us; it had been announced that there would only be one more graduating class after ours before our school shut down forever.  When you’re leaving a school, you want there to be something to return to from time to time, so as to draw sustenance from and measure yourself against some kind of ongoing tradition.  Even if you can’t return, you want what you had and were still to be going on for someone, in some form, or some way.[4]  At a graduation, you’re supposed to be the one doing the abandoning; it isn’t supposed to be about the school saying with relief: They’re gone!  We can close up shop. 

            The final fly in the ointment for me about that graduation was the awfulness of the music.  Our school had a great choir, but the orchestra was an embarrassment.  That orchestra, which I’d just walked past a few moments before the news photo above was snapped, was playing that familiar march from Die Meistersinger,[5] very badly.  I couldn’t feel full of pomp and circumstance with that cacophony going on.

            So whatever people might like graduations to feel like, mine wasn’t much.

            Vernors With Something Huge On The Side

            The after-party, though, was another matter.

            There had been a series of class parties over the extended goodbye we were all saying to each other.  The very last one was that afternoon, at our classmate Dave’s house.  This was the last time we would all[6] be together before you’d have to call it a reunion.  Dave was not a special friend of mine.  I was one of the smart kids, he was one of the jocks, about the fastest runner I witnessed in my brief stint as manager of the track team.  Dave was not the greatest student, and not very friendly towards those of us who were.  But I was glad to be there, if only because it was a great place to have a party. 

            Dave came from one of the established mercantile families of Ann Arbor.  There was a store on Main Street with the family name, and his home was on a circle that bore the family name too.  There was a large pool in the back yard, and he’d set up (or maybe the family just had) a real live soda fountain to help us beat the June heat.  I still remember that fountain with longing.

            To explain this, I first have to explain Vernors Ginger Ale,[7] to the extent anyone can explain it.  Though I can now buy a product by that name in Baltimore, the true Vernors was a Detroit thing, an intense, pungent ginger-and-vanilla experience, heightened by the deliberate overcarbonation of the beverage.  And if you happened to put that overcarbonated treat in a soda fountain beside a pool on a hot summer afternoon, it made for indescribable wonderfulness.  You more inhaled it than drank it, especially if you knew to spritz in only shallow drafts.  The foam gave you all the flavor and little else.  I believe there were other flavors in the fountain, but I only had eyes for Vernors.

            So there I was, drowning my sorrow in Vernors, and then someone turned on the record player.  That was my first opportunity to hear Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The U.S. release of the album had been either June 1 or June 2.[8]  So the album had been out a week.  I might have heard something of it on the radio, but there were no singles from it in release.  The album came out only as an album, the only right way for it to be heard.  So I’m pretty certain that up to this point I’d only heard of it, not heard the thing itself.

            Most critics call this the single greatest album of the rock era.  I agree about that, but sheer abstract greatness was not the quality that made the first hearing unique for those of us sitting around that pool.  What struck me, and don’t think I was alone, was how strange the album sounded.  It starts with an orchestra tuning up in a concert hall against a background of crowd noises, not a very typical way for any production in the world of rock to have started.  As the vinyl rotated, we heard a whole lot of other stuff we’d seldom or never heard before: merry-go-round pipe organ sounds, sitars, an orchestra doing chromatic upwards slides, foxes and hounds, string chamber ensembles.  We heard lyrics about things no one else was lyricizing about: a young woman leaving home, getting old, meter maids, and whatever Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds might be about.  Picking up the album cover (and I remember I did that) was to encounter things we’d never seen before: a group shot that included the Beatles dressed up in Victorian band-leader uniforms and waxworks of the Fab Four, Marlene Dietrich, a bust of Oscar Wilde, Laurel and Hardy, you name it.  The interior opened up to reveal a closeup of our heroes as the band-leaders against a harsh gold-yellow background.  The back had them awash in scarlet with all of their lyrics (not a common thing in those days.)

            Did everyone instantly drop everything and listen?  No, it was a pool party.  Did anyone ignore it entirely?  I can’t speak for everyone there, but I seem to recall a lot of dumbfounded comments.  Those who were paying any kind of attention knew that they’d have to pay a lot more attention, later on, that we’d all have to listen to it several times to get out of it a reasonable helping of what the album had to offer.  But hey, we had the time.

            That was the beauty of the moment for us.  We had the time.  No more teachers, no more books.  No more living at home.  No more anything familiar.  In our first official post-high school moments we were being offered something original, something we had not encountered before.  It was bright and shiny and challenging and exciting. 

            I remember little else about that party.  I do remember hearing that record, though, and feeling great.  We were leaving home, bye-bye.    

[1]   This links you to a CD.  So far as I know, the only downloadable version as of this writing (March 2011) is on iTunes.  But I have no direct link for that.

[2]   This version actually uses the music of the reprise rather than the opening cut of the album.  However the quick montage of Pepper images is remarkable.

[3]  My stepfather died just shy of his 76th birthday in 1998.  Age being such a relative thing, you can make up your own mind whether the first part of his prediction came true or not.

[4]   I’m called to mind of the ending of the second of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, The House at Pooh Corner (1928):  “So they went off together.  But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”  In one sense it’s a beautiful lie.  Christopher Robin stops being a child, grows up and dies.  He plays nowhere now.  In another it’s very true; by the magic of his invocation of a lovely moment in a boy’s preadolescence, A.A. Milne has created two books that will enable other children, especially boys, to live for a while in that safe, amusing imaginative realm, probably for as long as there are readers.

[5]   To hear it performed as intended, download here.

[6]   When I say “all,” I’m guessing with a great degree of confidence that a few of us wouldn’t have been there.  Unfortunately, there were one or two kids who had been singled out, by the cruelty of which young people are so capable, for mistreatment by almost everyone to some degree.  It may have been aspects of their bodies or their personalities; whatever it was, our treatment of these kids was inexcusable.  At our 20th reunion in 1987, a classmate of ours reported that over the intervening years he had run into one of these “goats,” who had wanted nothing to do with him.  The classmate commented that we had collectively been cruel, and if he’d been the former “goat,” he wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with him, either.  We saw one of these kids at one of the reunions (our class “reunes” a lot), but basically they have turned their backs, and who can blame them?

And what was my own part in all this?  So far as I can recall, I never participated in anything like persecution, but I didn’t do anything about it either.  I never tried to befriend these kids.  I dealt with them where it was called for, but that was it.  In my defense, the class I joined as a ninth-grader had mostly been together for eight years at that point.  The roles of persecutors and victims had long since been set.  I do not to this day think I could have achieved anything.  Should I still have tried?  Yeah, I think so.

[7]   You can see an apostrophe in the logo.  Somewhere along the line, the apostrophe got dropped from the name.

[8]   My sources differ.  Ian MacDonald’s ferociously knowledgeable book, cited before, says, at Page 232, that the date was June 2.  Allmusic says, on undisclosed authority, that the date was June 1.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except commercial images

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  1. John Poinier says:

    Very nice and you make some very interesting observations. U High ’67

  2. Alex Ware says:

    Enjoyed the read. I recall even less about the actual ceremony for UHS ’68, but I do remember that we had a shitload of parties and they made for a fabulous week. I have very fond memories of the party after graduation, but I won’t post those thoughts here. I also recall that UHS was a refreshing break from the cruelty of clicks and harrassment of ‘goats’ in the larger public schools.

  3. Tim Reade says:

    Insightful as usual, Jack. thanks

  4. Joe Tiboni says:

    Funny you should mention the almost done aspect. The class of “67 always seemed to act like you were the last class out!

  5. Perry G. Wilson says:

    Jack – wonderful reflection back to our youth. We are the Cubs of the Wolverines. Thank you for sharing your insight.

  6. Jill (oppenheim) Miller says:

    John (Jack), Excited to find your site. Brought back memories. We even went to a prom together (Junior-Senior Prom 1966 I think) doubling with Mindy. Sad to think of Dave Shipman. I am trying to remember what we all talked about in high school. I know Alex and I kept journals. I wonder what we wrote about.