Monday, December 28, 2015

Kōhachiro Miyata: Shakuhachi – The Japanese Flute

by G. Jack Urso

 
 

Shakuhachi – The Japanese Flute, by Kōhachiro Miyata (b. 1938) is a 1977 Elektra Nonesuch Explorer Series release. This recording introduced Miyata to the United States and quickly became a classic and endures as a milestone in the popularization of the World Music genre.  The ethereal sounds of the shakuhachi peacefully flow around the listener, yet there is an element of contained tension. An eerie undertone persists throughout the music that keeps the listener engaged with the compositions rather than drifting off into their own inner thoughts.


The album was reissued in CD format in the 1990s, which I obtained through BMG Music. Some may not miss the old mail order record clubs, but the choice of free CDs compelled me to sample genres of music I would otherwise likely never be exposed to.


I originally uploaded this album on YouTube in 2014 as background music for Views of the Planet Earth Captured by the Crew of STS-75 where it barely gets a mention; however, as one of my favorite recordings, it has been long overdue to be featured on its own accord. Here, Shakuhachi – The Japanese Flute and images of a slowly rotating Earth blend to form a sort of mandala, creating – almost literally – a contemplative space 

The track list, credits, and liner notes are provided below.
Tracklist: 
1. Honshirabe  3:50 
2. Sanya  6:17 
3. Tsuru No Sugomori  6:08 
4. Shika No Tōne  7:32 
5. Akita Sugagaki  9:30 
Credits:
Art Direction, Design – Doyle Partners
Coordinator – Teresa Sterne
Engineer – Larry Mericka
Liner Notes – David Loeb
Mastered By – Robert C. Ludwig
Photography – René Burri / Magnum
Producer, Engineer – David Lewiston
Shakuhachi – Kōhachiro Miyata
 
 
Following are the liner notes for Shakuhachi – The Japanese Flute, by David Loeb, and transcribed retaining the  original spelling, punctuation, and italicization.

 
1. Honshirabe. This short piece corresponds to a prelude or overture, and today is often used at the beginning of a program. The term “shirabe,” which appears frequently in titles of Japanese instrumental compositions, means “investigation,” specifically with respect to the instrument’s tuning. The written character for “hon” means “central” or “primary,” and with stringed instruments it alludes to the most frequently employed tunings.
 
2. Sanya. This piece is in arch form, with a central section higher in pitch and more agitated than the opening and closing sections. The title means “Three Valleys.” Both Honshirabe and Sanya are played on a 2.4 foot shakuhachi.
 
3. Tsuru no Sugomori. Perhaps no other composition in the entire solo repertory has suffered so much mutilation as this haunting work. The title means “Tenderness of Cranes,” specifically referring to such tenderness as is expressed between parent birds and their young. Many of the trill effects can be considered as imitation of bird sounds, although so many variants of this piece exist – not only in different regions, but among different schools and even different performers – that the reference is not always specific. In the hands of some players it has degenerated into little more than a vehicle for virtuoso display The piece is played her on the standard (1.8 foot) shakuhachi.
1.8 foot Chikusing model shakuhachi made from Chinese Madake bamboo
4. Shika no Tōne. This is one of the most famous shakuhachi compositions, and probably the most recent of the works heard here: it dates from the 18th century. Entitled “The Sound of Deer Calling to One Another,” the piece’s special effects call for a particular kind of audible breathing in which the melodic line is never lost. Often the work is heard as a duet for two shakuhachi, and it is not certain which version is the original. It is played here on the standard-sized instrument (this particular composition is rarely, if ever, played on other sizes).
 
5. Akita Sugagaki. Akita is region near the northern end of the main island of Japan; in ancient times it was largely unsettled wilderness. Since there is no certainty that any of the melodic ideas come from this province, it seems likely that the location was used in the title simply to suggest the remote and in accessible. Sugagaki is a term that occurs in a number of titles of 17th-century Japanese and Okinawan koto pieces in variation form; unlike most solo shakuhachi works, Akita Sugagaki is a loosely constructed series of variations. It is played here on the standard-sized instrument.
 

History of the Shakuhachi, by David Loeb, from the liner notes to Shakuhachi – The Japanese Flute: 

The shakuhachi is the most important wind instrument of Japan. Because of its similarities to the Chinese tung-hsiao, it is generally thought to have come to Japan from China, but its depiction in religious art of the 8th century indicates that this type of instrument has been used in Japan for well over a millennium.

There are few, if any, instruments in the world that associate so complex a playing technique with such simplicity of construction. The shakuhachi is a hollowed-out bamboo tube with four holes in front and one in back; there are no keys. The player covers most of the upper open end of the tube with his lower lip and then blows across the remaining area of the opening. Directly opposite the lip, the tube is slightly cut away to provide a sharp edge for the wind stream. Despite the presence of only five holes, the instrument has a complete chromatic scale of two octaves and a fifth. Tones outside the instrument’s natural scale are obtained by partially covering holes in various combinations and by tilting the instrument towards or away from the body. By gradual application of such techniques, the shakuhachi is also capable of a wide range of slides, some extending up to a major third. Certain special effects such as flutter-tonguing and distinctly audible breathing, which in Western music are associated with 20-th century avant-garde flute repertory, were a standard part of traditional shakuhachi technique by the 18th century.


The name shakuhachi means 1.8 shaku (1 shaku = .994 feet). That length of bamboo tube has long been regarded as standard, with the D above middle C as the fundamental tone. However, the size of the instrument ultimately depends on the size of the bamboo joint, so that different sizes (graduated in tenths of shaku) exist, the most common sizes after the standard 1.8 being 1.6 (E), 2.1 (B), and 2.4 (A). The smaller instruments produce a clearer, more brilliant and penetrating sound, while the larger ones have a warmer and fuller tone (rather like the flute, recorder, or clarinet families of Western instruments). The larger shakuhachi are able to play so softly as to become almost inaudible without any change of color. All sizes of the instruments possess considerable dynamic range in all registers.


During the Edo period (early-17th to mid-19th centuries), the shakuhachi was used primarily in chamber ensembles (with koto and shamisen), but in recent years there has been a revival of the ancient solo literature. Many of the solo pieces are conceived as aids for meditation, both for the listener and player, the tempos are predominately slow, with variety provided by shorter notes that reflect tome-painting are not uncommon; many shakuhachi compositions also draw on distinctive ancient melodies in a way that preserves their unique regional character without undue emphasis on folkloric aspects.

                         

 

Friday, December 25, 2015

CBS Seasons Greetings (1966): Animation by R.O. Blechman

by G. Jack Urso
 

One of the wondrous things about the Internet is its ability to conjure up the ghosts of the past, and in this case the animated ghosts of Christmas Past. We can connect with long-forgotten memories that upon retrospect we see contributed to our psyches. One such example is the CBS production of J.T. (1969), which I write about elsewhere on Aeolus 13 Umbra (click on link for article and film). In J.T.’s case, while I had forgotten the title I remembered the story and doggedly searched for the film on the Internet. Sometimes, however, we encounter our forgotten past in moments of pure serendipity, as in the case of two brief animated films by American animator R.O. Blechman. These shorts are thirty and sixty seconds long each and first aired on CBS in 1966 during the holiday season (see films below).

I had forgotten these two little gems until I ran across them purely by accident while researching animated Christmas films from my youth. In these simple messages of giving to animals, the ecology, and the poor, Blechman reminds us of the essential Spirit of Christmas without being pedantic or thumping a bible. Indeed, these are universal and timeless messages of compassion and giving that go beyond commercial illustration and into the realm of true artistic expression. A thirty or sixty second commercial is a tight time frame to be profound, sublime, and subtle all at once, but Blechman nails it each time.

Rediscovering these animated shorts brought back a rush of memories of pleasant, and sometimes not-so-pleasant, Christmas memories. While some may decry the commercialization of Christmas – and to a large degree I agree – commercialization can bring little moments of beauty and art to a big audience. If in all the social static and rush that comes with mass marketing in the holiday season we still get these simple human expressions of compassion and kindness during the harshest time of the year, when want is felt more keenly by those in need, it may not be so bad after all. CBS would do themselves and all of us well to include these little masterpieces every year with their holiday programming.
 
 

 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Summer Siren


by G. Jack Urso

  

my city sings a summer song

with sirens, shouts, honks, and horns

solar rays over an asphalt haze

lingering long lunar days

 

basketballs poppin’ off the pavement

like bare feet on hot sand

running bases, bicycle races

fire hydrants drenching a burning land

 

comic books, gumballs,
Sing the Edge, by Jed McKee (1986)

fireworks, a lemonade stand

hot dogs, hamburgers,

the ice cream man

fistfights, tree forts,

sleeping under the moon

will-o'-the-wisps — gone too soon

 

all sorts of things

with skies and wings

gathering light in pocketfuls of night

under the sun that warms

 
All Sorts of Things, With Skies and Wings, and The Sun that Warms are the titles of elementary school readers published by Ginn and Company (1973).


Monday, November 30, 2015

James Burke: Balanced Anarchy – The Day the Universe Changed

by G. Jack Urso


The search for truth, the discovery of nature’s secrets’, as Decartes put it, is an idiosyncratic search for temporary truth. One truth is replaced by another. The fact that over time science has provided a more complex picture of nature is not in itself final proof that we live by the best, most accurate model so far.
 James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed (book)

If Aeolus 13 Umbra has a testament of faith it can be found in the closing segment from James Burke's classic 1985 documentary mini-series The Day the Universe Changed, which surveyed those moments in human history where our technology and knowledge forced our society to accept new world views – new “truths,” if you will.

As Western civilization has evolved, there have been small movements away from a belief in absolute truth, where religion and faith in a deity defined and determined what we know, to a more relativist view; however, any conclusion that society is largely determined by relativist values is, to be frank, wrong.  In fact, politically and socially the world is as polarized and ideologically competitive with alternate world views as it ever has been, and we need look no further than the daily news reports to see how people of all political and religious viewpoints have seemingly become more intractable in their positions.

The relativist view is generally shunned. It is supposed by the Left to dilute commitment and by the Right to leave society defenceless. In fact it renders everybody equally responsible for the structure adopted by the group. If there is no privileged source of truth, all structures are equally worth assessment and equally worth toleration. Relativism neutralizes the views of extremists of all kinds. It makes science accountable to the society from which its structure springs. It urges care to judgment through awareness of the contextual nature of the judgmental values themselves.
 James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed (book)

Religion and faith provides what Burke calls “certainty.” In an ever-changing world, and a dangerous one, belief in the supernatural provides an explanation for why things go bad, why they go wrong, and who is to blame or give credit to. The problem with this perspective is that the faithful must philosophically bend over backwards to explain why a god who is supposed to be in control of creation can permit horrible disasters and tragedies to exist. Explaining that it is simply part of some grand scheme beyond our knowledge to comprehend is what it appears to be on the surface – a pacification to allay fears that no one is really in charge up there. A whole religious industry has grown to squelch those fears and keep the tithe-paying congregations in line.

But, ironically the latest product of that way of doing things is a new instrument, a new system, that while it could make conformity more rigid, more totalitarian, then ever before in history, could also blow everything wide open. Because with it we could operate on the basis that values, and standards, and ethics, and facts, and truth all depend on what your view of the world is – and there may be as many views of that as there are people. And with this [holds up a computer chip] capable of keeping a tally of millions of opinions being voiced electronically we might be able to lift the limitations of conforming to any centralized representational form of government originally invented because there was no way for everyone’s voice to be heard. We might be able to give everybody unhindered, untested access to knowledge.
 James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed (TV episode 10)

Burke is proposing that the next phase in human development will move beyond the confines of pigeon-holed ideological positions to a more fluid, constantly changing playing field. The catalyst for this evolutionary step, a as Burke perceived it in 1985, was the humble computer chip. While the Internet was in use during the 1980s, its use was largely limited to so-called “elite users” in academia, government, and industry. Indeed, it was not until the development of the Internet’s “killer app” the World Wide Web in 1989 that its use began to spread to the general public.

Burke’s and other futurists’ claim that such an evolution in communications technology would lead to telecommuting, a move away from urban areas, and a subsequent decrease in automobile traffic has only partially come true. While the Internet has allowed for many people to work and study at home, urban population density and traffic congestion has only increased. Nevertheless, the power the Internet has made available to the layperson is considerable. Individuals are now empowered to communicate with the world, and earn money, on a scale never before possible. Academic research that would take days to complete before the Internet I can now complete in a matter of hours. Individuals and small businesses now have easy access to worldwide markets. Patients can look up their own diseases and consult with their doctors more informatively about their treatment.

Even so, one must also concede that the darker gifts of such mass and instantaneous communication were not fully anticipated. Individual isolation tends to increase. Financial scams are rampant. Racist beliefs are more widely spread. Cyberbullying has become a social phenomenon.  Criminals and terrorists more effectively recruit and fund their activities. While some may place the blame on technology, all it has done has been to shine a light on what was already there. It is up to all of us, both individually and collectively as a society, to balance our gifts with our propensity for anarchy.

James Burke's “Balanced Anarchy” from The Day the Universe Changed:

 
 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Paleo-Indian Artifacts from the Hannacroix Creek

by G. Jack Urso
 

Erosion along the Hannacroix Creek in Southern Albany County, NY, following the impact of Hurricane Irene on the U.S. East Coast in 2012, uncovered a trove of pre-Columbian Paleo-Indian stone tools and artifacts. During the summers of 2013 and 2014, I undertook a series of excursions to a particular place along the Hannacroix where these ancient relics were found.

While I found a number of items, two are presented here for consideration: a hammerstone-like formation and another item whose precise identification is unknown – though the features are distinctly man-made. All the items I found were composed of sedimentary rock. While harder rocks were preferred as source material when available, there was a distinct lack of other rock types available in the areas I searched. Further, various types of sedimentary rocks were used as source material for tools, according to Understanding Stone Tools and Archaeological Sites (2000), by Brian Patrick Kooyman of the University of Calgary.
Fig. 1
The first item, fig. 1, appears to be an irregularly shaped cobblestone formation; however, closer examination reveals sharply defined cut marks outlining the stone (fig. 2), which appears to be a matrix for a hammer stone or possibly a rudimentary axe head. It is clearly incomplete, having been abandoned midway through creation. Was it found to be flawed in some way? Was it a practice rock for some young Stone Age apprentice learning his craft? 
 
Fig. 2
Those who doubt the ability of this type of sedimentary stone to cause damage are invited to experiment themselves. Tests I conducted with similar rocks found at the site reveal them to have acceptable tolerance levels for working with organic material.
 
Fig. 3
This part of New York State was scoured by immense glaciers during the last Ice Age which ended approximately 10,000 years ago. Glacial striations can create deep impressions into rocks, so analyzing carved rocks requires a discerning eye. The rock pictured in fig. 3 stood out immediately, which you can see in the accompanying photo taken at the time of discovery. This oblong stone is approximately nine inches long and features a shallow carved-out impression with perfectly rounded ends (fig. 4).
 
Fig. 4
The skeptic in me immediately wondered if the items weren’t naturally made – perhaps being a remnant of glacial striation or possibly having flaked off another rock during erosion. Closer examination, however, revealed one edge to have three equally spaced cut marks (fig. 5), perhaps revealing where the maker cut into the rock to begin carving the impression. Further, the impression’s ends are too round, the sides too straight, and too sharply defined for a natural formation.
 
Fig. 5
My suspicion that the item was of human origin was further confirmed when a friend forwarded me an article from the University of Texas at Austin web page (Texasbeyondhistory.net) with a photo of a Woodland period artifact (500 B.C.E. – 800 C.E.) from the Jonas Short Mound located on the Angelina River under the Sam Rayburn Reservoir in east Texas (fig. 6). Apart from the different rock type, the similarity between the two items is uncanny.
 
Fig. 6
What fascinates me, and many others, about these items is that they were crafted, held, and used by people not so different from myself. Humans long ago held them in their hands as I do now. They stood where I stood and saw the same sunrise and sunset over the same isolated, rural landscape which has seen little change, even in 21st Century New York State.

The persons who made these items are long dead and forgotten. The uniqueness of their individual Iives is forever washed away by the tide of history and all that remain are these few stone tools.  I wonder, centuries from now, what artifacts from my life will be left for someone to hold and wonder? Will my existence also be washed away and forgotten with the relentless tide of time?

I can only hope that there will at least be someone who will wonder – very much the same as I do now.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hitler: The Whole Story (1989)

by G. Jack Urso
 

Hitler: The Whole Story (1989, CINE-ART/Munich), is a two and a half hour documentary providing an overview of the life of Adolf Hitler from birth, to his days as a homeless vagrant, his military service, and finally his rise and fall from power as dictator and war monger. Rare footage, including color film shot by Eva Braun, provide a look at Hitler’s private life as well as German life under the Nazis. The complete recording is presented below, a digital copy of a 1989 videotape distributed by the Discovery Channel.

Originally titled Hitler: A Career, this documentary is one of the best reviews of Hitler’s life and provides a focus on the various influences that contributed to his psychological make-up. All too often Hitler is simply dismissed as a “monster,” but he was not. Indeed, his behavior was rooted in very human insecurities; however, that spark of conscience that keeps the devil on our shoulder from having too much say was absent from Hitler's soul. He became a brutal, cruel man who demanded from others what he could not do himself and sought power as a buttress for his own psychologically maladjusted outlook on life.

Segments from Hitler: The Whole Story have previously been featured on Aeolus 13 Umbra and include:
 

I saw this documentary in early 1990 and it launched a hitherto untapped interest in Hitler and the Nazi regime. While I grew up with a multitude of World War II vets, and was inundated with various epic films on the topic, I did little reading of the conflict apart from my school studies. As an administrator for a local college, I could take books out of the library for an entire semester, and I did so with a vengeance. I poured through all the important biographies of the major Nazi figures, U.S. Army psychological reports, and classic documentary series like The World at War, which, in my opinion, still has yet to be surpassed.

What I find compelling about Hitler is how his life is a study in brutality and irrationality, from the severe beatings at the hands of his father to his genocidal rage as an adult. Hitler, however, remains an enigma for certainly others have been physically abused and homeless, but did not lose their humanity. His career is as much a result of luck and timing as it was fear and brute force. In this documentary we get a glimpse at the complicated mix of events and sociopathy that created Hitler and the Nazi phenomenon.

If Hitler kept his anti-Semitism in check and still pursued a war with the West and Russia it is likely many German Jews and other minorities would have fought in the army, as they did in World War I. In fact, it was a Jewish officer who recommended Hitler for the Iron Cross in the Great War. What we learn in this documentary, however, is that Hitler did not love Germany, or Germans – Aryan or otherwise. In the end, he abandoned them to a fate he engineered. He was so scared of the world that he needed to either mold it to his wishes or destroy it. Indeed, it is this fear of the world, fear of those unlike ourselves, that has driven many to commit heinous acts against humanity – a phenomenon that is played out to this very day.

A study in microcosm on how the Nazi’s were able to manipulate German society to attain and maintain control is available in my essay The Nazi Seizure of the German Peoples’ Community.

 

Monday, September 7, 2015

JFK Assassination: As It Happened

by G. Jack Urso



JFK Assassination: As It Happened, is a six hour and fifteen minute NBC news compilation of footage following the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The program provides raw minute-by-minute coverage beginning just before 2:00 P.M. ET and ending shortly after 8:00 P.M. ET. The viewing experience is very much like a time machine – we are transported back to that day and that time and that moment when many historians argue the turbulent 1960s really began. The complete recording is presented below, a digital copy of a VHS videotape recorded in 1993 from a public television broadcast. 

NBC news anchors and correspondents featured include Frank McGee, Bill Ryan, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Merrill Mueller, Robert MacNeil, Tom Pettit, Edwin Newman, and John Chancellor. The technology of the times is pushed to limits as engineers frantically switch between studios, film segments, and reporters breathlessly rushing in with the latest breaking news. At a time when cameras where heavy and had vacuum tubes, film had to be developed and then edited and spliced with a razor and tape, and teletype instead of computers, one is amazed at how efficiently the crews got the news on-air. 
 
Segments from JFK Assassination: As It Happened have previously been featured on Aeolus 13 Umbra and include:
 
 
I explore the assassination of President Kennedy in depth in the Aeolus 13 Umbra article The Assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald. Growing up in the wake of the assassination, I came to believe that there was a vast conspiracy to kill the president. In fact, in 1990 I began to research the tragedy in order to find documentation to support my preconceived beliefs, yet I discovered just the opposite. While others may have wished Kennedy dead, Oswald was the only assassin and did so out of purely personal reasons, mainly a sociopathic need for narcissistic self-aggrandizement that he hoped would have resulted in a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Readers, of course, are free to draw their own conclusions; however, in the nearly 25 years since I came to the realization that Oswald acted alone I have encountered no evidence to change my mind. Skeptical readers are invited to read the article above for more information.
 
JFK Assassination: As It Happened, is presented below in its entirety from my personal archives:

 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Apollo 11: As It Happened

by G. Jack Urso
 

Apollo 11: As It Happened is a six-hour compilation of ABC News coverage of the Apollo 11 launch, Moon landing, and return to Earth, July 16 – 24, 1969. No commercials. No narration. Just six hours of pure, unadulterated news coverage – enough to satisfy even the most hard-core fan of the space program or news junkie. The complete recording is presented below, a digital copy of a VHS videotape recorded in July 1994 from a public television broadcast.

As I was born in 1964, I grew up with the space program and counted astronauts among my first role models and heroes. I can even remember the Moon landing, sort of. I was four years old and my family was vacationing in Wildwood, New Jersey. It was a few minutes before 11 P.M. and I was drifting in and out of sleep when my father abruptly woke me up just in time to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon – which I did, and immediately fell back to sleep. I'm grateful to count myself among those who watched that day, if but just for a little while.

What makes this a real treasure are all the segments ABC produced to fill the news cycle. Several of these segments have previously been posted on Aeolus 13 Umbra and include:
 

Additionally, “man on the street” interviews provide an insight into the real excitement people felt at the Moon landing, something which is all too often overlooked today.  ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds and science editor Jules Bergman host the coverage, which pushed the technology of the times to its limits. A young Peter Jennings reporting on the news elsewhere in the world, including Vietnam, adds a somber tone to the momentous events.

As an artifact for research, Apollo 11: As It Happened provides source material and insight into a wide variety of areas, including broadcast engineering, computer technology, fashion, and language. Along with interviews of various people, including scientists, celebrities, reporters, authors, artists, and everyday citizens both young and old and black and white  we get a glimpse at "the State of the Union" in July 1969.

Apollo 11: As It Happened, the complete six-hour recording, is provided below from my personal archives: 

 
 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Last Conversation

by G. Jack Urso
 

“Jack! Jack Urso! Is that that you? Do you remember me?”

In the early 1990s,  I was standing in line at a convenience store around the corner from where I lived in a tiny, one bedroom apartment. The gentleman calling my name was a tall, elegant looking, elderly black man with a shock of white hair that made him look like a cross between Nelson Mandela and Morgan Freeman. It was Mr. Bryan, a family friend from my childhood. He was from Jamaica and had a soft, lyrical accent that matched his gentle demeanor. I recognized his voice before I even turned around to see who it was.

Ashley Bryan’s wife and children were close friends of ours on Norwood Avenue in Albany, NY. Both he and his wife, who matched her husband in kindness, worked in education – he as a math professor at the University at Albany (then SUNY Albany), and she as a librarian for the local school district. Since my father was also a principal for the district, this brought our families together. Occasionally, Mrs. Bryan would bring a film projector from the school library along with a movie to our house. We would hang a white sheet against the wall and watch the film together, both black and white families. I, in my youthful ignorance, was completely oblivious to the racial tensions around us.

Growing up in 1960s and 1970s, there was only one family on my block who was black, the Bryans. According to my mother, when Ashley was first offered a job with SUNY-Albany in the early 1960s, the college found them a home on nearby Providence Street whose residents quickly took up a petition to keep them off the block. Eventually, they settled on nearby Norwood Avenue where my family lived.

Welcome to Norwood Avenue

The Bryan home on Norwood Ave.
This was a better move. The home was nicer and there was a park right in the middle of the street that was ringed by tall maple and pine trees. Still, they had to contend with their crotchety neighbor, Chief. Chief was a former navy chief petty officer who worked as a football coach for the school district. Despite seeing Ashley walk to work every day in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, Chief, at first, assumed he was a janitor because he was black. He was eventually set straight by his religious Irish-Catholic wife Eleanor, who often played Edith to his Archie Bunker.

At the time, I was blissfully unaware of any racial issues. The Bryans had a young daughter my age, Lori, who was a constant playmate in my younger days, as well as my first crush. We were probably no more than five years old when I convinced her to go behind the garage with me. I think my plan was to give her a kiss, but once there my age kicked in and I decided that would just be gross and we hunted for butterflies instead. When my occasionally violent best friend Billy Dober gave me a black eye in front of her house, Lori took me gently aside, put ice on my eye, and told me I should go back and kick his ass – which I later did, employing that rare coup de grace of shoving his head in a pile of dog shit. Good times...good times.

By the late 1970s, however, our families had grown apart. Some of it was that their children went to different schools and were, frankly, higher achieving than us – or at least me at any rate. Most of it though was due to my parent’s rather loud arguments leading up to their divorce. Divorce in our little Catholic neighborhood was not as widespread as it later became, and was viewed as a step down in life. It made other families uncomfortable and I can’t say that I blame them. It was a bitter separation and the police visited on more than one occasion. Once, I had to go outside and explain to the cops that everything was alright. They made me take my shirt off and show them I wasn’t being beaten – which I wasn’t, but they made me do it right there in the street where all the neighbors could see.

The Dober brothers:
Billy and Johnny
The only kids on the block who continued to hang out with me were the blue collar Dober brothers who in the winter insisted on shoveling the snow for our mom for free after my dad moved out. Then one day came a knock at our door. My mom answered. We seldom got visitors anymore.

It was Ashley Bryan. He spoke respectfully to my mother about his regret over the recent circumstances in our lives and told her that if she ever needed anything all she had to do was ask. It’s one of those promises no one really gets called on, but is appreciated nonetheless. My mother recalled to her dying day that simple act of kindness – to come to our home, pay his respects, and, in his own small way, share our grief.

Crossing Lines

When Mr. Bryan approached me in the convenience store that day, I was dumbstruck. For one thing, my appearance had radically changed from the last time he saw me, which was about 15 years ago at that point. I had long hair and a beard, yet he was still able to pick me out of a crowd. Also, I was just a kid back then and while growing up I doubt I ever said anything more than hello to him.

It was no coincidence we were at the same store. I moved to an apartment two blocks away from my old stomping grounds on Norwood Avenue. Not for the sake of nostalgia, but rather out of sheer laziness – I worked one block away at the Junior College of Albany and I could roll out of bed ten minutes before I had to be at work and still get there on time.

I brought Mr. Bryan up to date on my family, and he did the same with his, instructing me to please call him Ashley. He took particular interest in my work at in the college’s inmate education program where I worked as a program coordinator. He paid for his items and we went our separate ways. It was a pleasant encounter and I thought that would be the end of that.

One day, while working at my desk at the college, my secretary tells me a “Mr. Bryan” is here to see me. Ashley walked in and we had a long conversation about my work. I tried to get him to open up about his work at SUNY-Albany. He was a bit reticent to share much, but we both found common ground on the inanities of college administration and the petty bureaucrats that plagued our existence.

For about the next year and a half I would run into Ashley around the neighborhood. He spent the fall and winter in Jamaica, where he grew up, so I only saw him in the spring and summer. He had this way of laughing at the end of every sentence that was both endearing and occasionally odd.

“Jack! It is good to see you! Ha, ha, ha!”

“I hope your mother is doing well. Ha, ha, ha!”

“I do not speak with Chief very often. Ha, ha, ha!”

My last encounter with Ashley took place in the summer of 1994. I dropped some acid and was tripping balls to the wall so I went out to walk it off. It was one of the most humid days I can ever remember. Walking around outside felt like being inside some sweaty t-shirt – an experience intensified by the LSD.

I made a turn down Norwood as a shortcut to my apartment and was walking by the Bryans’ house when I heard, “Jack! Jack!”

Ashley stood in the dining room window and waved to me, indicating that I should stop. He came out at a quick pace, almost running. I noticed that despite the hot and humid weather he was wearing long pants over pajama bottoms. We spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes catching up. His eyes were red, much as mine were after smoking too much weed, and he laughed at the end of each sentence, as he usually did. I wondered who was higher – him or me. 

It was probably me. 

I loved Mr. Bryan, I really did. His gentle demeanor and studious nature actually were a great influence on me. During that year and half we were friends he took the time, in a quiet way, to sort of mentor me, not so much in our common professional field – higher education – but rather as an older man at the end of his life to a younger man at the start his.

I never saw Ashley Bryan again.

The Black Funeral

A month or so after our last meeting, Ashley Bryan returned to Jamaica and on October 18, 1994, he passed away. I learned this in the spring while reading the obituaries. The notice announced that a reception in his memory would be held at their home on Norwood Avenue. I mentioned it to my father. I told him about my recent acquaintanceship with Mr. Bryan and that I strongly felt I should attend the reception. I tried to convince my father to join me, but, although he reformed his ways in the days since he knew the Bryans, he burned too many bridges and wasn’t anxious to go back. Besides, if he did go that would be a cheat. Ashley was my friend. I had to honor his memory myself.

On the day of the reception, I put on the black suit and tie and drove over. Although their home was only two blocks away from mine and I could walk there, I wanted a quick getaway. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I am shy by nature and I hadn’t seen any of the family since I was a kid, but I remembered his visit to our house after my parents' nasty break up. I wasn’t sure if I was going in his memory or just for my own inbred Sicilian sense of honor. Whatever the case, I stopped over-thinking it. It was simply the right thing to do and I got on with it.

I pulled my little blue sports car in front of their home. Dozens of people were already there – at least 50, probably more. They were in the front yard. They were in the back yard. They were in every room of the house it seemed…and everyone, everyone, was black.

White people in America have no idea how African-Americans feel living in our society until the shoe is on the other foot. Despite my liberal attitudes, I felt a distinct unsettledness, as though I was on unfamiliar ground, even though I had been to this home many times as a child. I walked through the yard and into the open house. Every eye was on me and all were asking themselves the same question, “Who is this long-haired white boy and why is he here?” I knew I was intruding, but the obituary said the reception was open to the “friends and family of Ashley Bryan.” I had to go. I had to be there.

I made my way to Mrs. Bryan, who was arranging food at the dining room table. I walked over to her, standing in about the same spot her husband did when I last saw him run out his house to greet me. I told her who I was. Mrs. Bryan’s head went back and cocked to one side as her memories kicked in and she recognized me.

“Oh, Jackie! How nice of you to be here!” She exclaimed as she greeted me with a hug.

During the past year and a half or so I had never met Mrs. Bryan and as we spoke it became clear that her husband never mentioned me to her. She had no idea that we had recently become reacquainted. I explained to her why I felt I had to come and I think it overwhelmed her a bit. I asked about Lori, but she hadn’t arrived yet. I was invited to stay and eat, but it was awkward. I felt awkward and the others felt awkward. I wasn’t a member of the family or circle of friends. I was intruding. I was disappointed not to see Lori, but I paid my respects and left.

As I walked out of the house and across the street to my car, I looked over to the spot on the lawn where Ashley and I shared our last conversation. Over twenty years later, I can’t recall more than just a few words that passed between us in that year and a half, but even if I forget everything we ever said to each other it doesn’t matter. I remember everything that is important. 

Ashley M. Bryan: Born April 29, 1917 Died October 18, 1994.