There’s no easy way to view the end of another being’s last breaths. Nevertheless, in providing hospice care, we fulfill our responsibilities.
Alice and I drove Millie, ever complaining about our Ford Escape’s motion, to
Cowlitz Animal Clinic, here in Longview, Washington. The well-regarded clinic sits on a wide
commercially zoned highway with little weekend traffic. Because it was Saturday, we appeared to have
the clinic almost entirely to ourselves.
history here: A month before we moved to Longview, Millie disappeared from our
cramped Somerset West (Portland) apartment for 17 days. Somehow, our tabby feline was found by a
respectable homeowner more than a mile away, a fortuitous happening.
uneventful months with us in Longview, where we kept her indoors (and to our
neighbors’ delight) Alice walked the cat several times a week outside on a
leash, Millie was deemed to have diabetes.
Skeptical about treating her with daily insulin shots and frequent
bloodwork; Millie was already down to skin and bones. Less than six weeks later, even after
changing her diet from Meow Mix to Iams, she was on the doorstep of wasting
away — literally.
This visit to
the clinic was made tolerable by a sensitive doctor of veterinary medicine,
Kayleen McLain, who shared a professional sense of grief with us, especially
while trying to find a vein — any vein — to administer the needed dosage to
send Millie away to a permanent dreamland.
some as we said goodbye to her spirit, but found comfort once we noticed the
serene look as she passed over. We did
not mourn long, because doing so would hinder Millie’s journey to “the
I once read
that bonding with an animal comes with a limited contract: One of you will go
before the other. After that, life goes
probably why, at the moment we returned home, Alice cleaned up Millie’s area
from visible memorabilia. Today, Alice
is gardening outside, watching for hummingbirds, working up a sweat, and
encouraging new life.
Millie was a
great companion. We dare not weep,
because we would be crying only for our loss.
We will not be selfish.
Two weeks ago, Alice and I visited the Longview YMCA to tour its facilities. I have put on 20 pounds since my bladder operation, and we both could use some shaping up. Our guide turned out to be the Y’s executive director who took a keen interest in Alice’s renewed ambition to care for infants and toddlers.
The director handed Alice an application, and the two of us put together a multi-page submission, hand-delivering it on May 2. Two days later, as we prepared for a weekend with our extended family at the Aphasia Network’s Couples Retreat on the Oregon Coast, Alice received a call back from the Y.
Alice was offered a job!
We shared the good news with over 60 student counselors and staff, as well as other aphasia-recovering couples that night, and the people went wild. After three years of wondering whether she could adequately function as the professional she expects from herself (Alice’s stroke was March 12, 2015), here was the promise of a new beginning.
Back from the Coast
After our return last Sunday, Alice returned to the Y for a late-afternoon confirming interview. Two days later, Alice underwent training, and guess what?
Her first day at work is Tuesday morning.
The initial assignment calls for Alice to work one day a week. If Alice is able to progress at the Y, will I finally feel confident to take a break from driving for Uber and lately Lyft? Will I finally knuckle down and begin to write the book I’ve been bragging about?
At this point, it’s one step at a time. Four years ago, we moved to the Northwest to fulfill our manifest destiny. Now Alice is 74, I’m 75, and we’re settled in a beautiful condo apartment where we can jump-start our talents.
On her birthday in March of this year, Alice told me, “This year, don’t buy me anything. Instead, please, please get me a house.”
Alice realized the bloom had fallen off the Portland Rose City. We started looking around and found a two-story townhouse for sale in Longview, Washington, next to a public golf course. The photo above shows the crown jewel of Longview: Lake Sacajawea, a former channel of the Cowlitz River turned into a picturesque manmade lake, surrounded by 67 manicured parkland acres. Live music fills the air on six consecutive Thursday night concerts.
Alice and I were in a difficult spot, because we didn’t have money for a down payment. We were caught up in Portland’s rent crisis, and each year an increasing amount of money was being squeezed from us to rent a tiny 900-square-foot apartment next to a major freeway.
Mason Was a Navy Reservist
Thinking about my Uncle Eddie McCormick, though, led to an overdue realization. During the early 1960s, Eddie convinced me into joining the Naval Air Reserve. As far as the Armed Services were concerned, I was not a “man’s man.” This was especially true after I took the Navy’s aptitude test and set a new record for LOWEST score in mechanical ability. Eddie suggested I join the Naval Air Reserve’s six-month active duty group known as “Weekend Warriors.”
During that era, I was subject to the draft. So I enlisted as a preventive move and served six months of active duty – from October 6, 1960 until April 5, 1961, followed by 5½ years of active reserve duty spending one weekend a month at Jacksonville (Fla.) Naval Air Station and serving two weeks active duty during the summer. Most of those two-week tours took me to Guantanamo Bay, but my experience did not include combat, thank God.
After my discharge, I discovered legislation that disqualified 1960s reservists who served 180 or fewer days active duty from receiving VA benefits. This was a strike against six-month reservists, and I harbored resentment about the limitation of opportunity and expressed it to Uncle Eddie a few times.
Embracing a Revelation
Eventually, I found my niche as a broadcaster turned journalist, and regarded my military service as irrelevant history. My military history soon became relevant as I wracked my brain figuring out how to finance a condo purchase. I don’t remember how a flash of brilliance overcame me, but somehow I started counting my days of active duty from October 6 through April 5. That added up to more than 180 days, it was 182.
Oh my God, the commander at Jacksonville Naval Air Station must have mustered me out two days late. I was qualified!
Realtor Tami Cheatley was super-skeptical about VA financing, though, shunning it with a passion, but the Veterans Administration proved it was there for us. It recognized Alice and me as a married couple, and acknowledged my service. Oh yes, the VA did exact their pound of flesh, requiring me to document numerous explanations of every black mark our credit suffered over the last seven years.
We needed to get files from years past, copies of court judgments, visit the IRS, give every possible explanation for any bump in the road we experienced in life. But we did it, and today, on Eclipse Monday, we closed on the sale.
As we celebrate our hard-won victory today, I acknowledge what Uncle Eddie did for by getting me into the Naval Air Reserve. And I dote on his memory. So congratulate us, for today Alice and I became homeowners in a quiet, desirable neighborhood.
I participated in the American Boychoir School’s 75th anniversary concert at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in 2013.
In a July 2016 post, I wrote about my unwanted encounter with a pedophile in this heart of cultural civility, Princeton, New Jersey, in the mid-1950s. Anyone who wishes to read that post can find it here: sexual-predators.
The American Boychoir School never offered an open, frank discussion about rumors about its past. People whispered and wondered what had gone on, and the School continued to stick its head in the sand. I was there when a children’s show on Public Radio called “From the Top,” a showcase for young classical musicians, used the school as a setting for one of its young artists’ shows.
In 2014, Dustin Hoffman starred with Debra Winger in a movie called “Boychoir” that used the American Boychoir School as a backdrop; however, it only received limited release to tepid reviews. Hallmark Cards bought the movie, retitled it “Hear My Song” for national exposure on CBS-TV until the company learned of the New York Times archived exposé of the school’s sordid history, and the showing was quietly shelved. TV Week revealed the reasons Hallmark backed away in an article available online.
Here’s an update. The school is coming to an ignoble end. The American Boychoir School is abandoning its efforts to emerge from Chapter XI bankruptcy. It will close down. You can read about it here: boychoir school to close.
There is no joy in seeing the American Boychoir School go bust. But there is a high degree of poetic justice. This chapter of my childhood has reached its ultimate end.
The last offspring of Mason Johnston and Grace Brantley passed away peacefully on Thursday, Jan. 5, in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Grace Wiley Johnston McCormick reached the age of 90, and in doing so, she embodied the name “Grace.” My grandmother must be clapping her hands excitedly, exclaiming “My-oh,” anticipating her final daughter’s entry into that other existence to which we are headed. There is no doubt that the two Graces are being reunited.
Grace Wiley was married for 65 years to Eddie McCormick, a Navy seal whose valiant service in World War II speaks of a dark world he once inhabited. Grace bore up to Eddie’s demons, keeping them invisible to the outside world with nary a complaint, reflecting what it means to live up to the name “Grace.”
Grace Wiley and Eddie gave birth to two wonderful children: Barbara and Michael. I became friends with them both, and I bless the day we became related. Each of them manages his or her respective worlds under tenuous circumstances, and their daily sacrifices reflect on the quality of Grace’s motherly essence.
Barbara’s pride and joy offspring is named Dylan, who was conceived with her late husband David. Michael, who regularly sends up dog apples to his dearest companions, enjoys a continuously bountiful marriage with wife Kim, which produced Cameron, Corey, Kyle and Kara.
Here’s what Barbara and Michael wrote about their mother: “She loved everyone and never said anything bad about anyone. The word ‘hate’ was not in her vocabulary,” and they go on to relate how Grace was not shy about remonstrating her children if anything resembling “defugalties” fell from their mouths.
Barbara and Michael recall how Grace helped others any way she could, especially migrant workers. “She was a very tough individual and never complained about pain or circumstances. I think a lot of that came from growing up on the farm picking cotton and eating collard-green sandwiches.”
I, Mason Loika, am honored to have matriculated on my mother’s side through such fine family stock, and whenever I should feel frightened or alone, I have the advantage of recalling vivid memories of fine personages who set a high standard. Grace Wiley McCormick was one of those amazing good hearts, and I am glad to hear that she passed peacefully while in God’s waiting room.
Grace Wiley’s memorial service takes place tomorrow morning at Cradock Presbyterian Church, where her family worships on a regular basis. They ask nothing for themselves; rather, that all contributions go to the church.
Alongside her mother, Grace Wiley now joins her other siblings: Richard, Gladys, my mother Thelma and Bill. In doing so, I become established as a next-generation elder to humbly salute the Johnston quintet along with their respective offspring.
On the 10th day of January, 2017, the Johnston family stands tall and proud amidst a glorious treasure chest of memories as we pause at 11 am Eastern Time to salute one more family hero who has passed over: Grace Wiley McCormick.
As Alice and I prepare to celebrate Christmas Eve with my cousin Margaret Johnston, here’s a Christmas tale of good fortune and considerable divine providence to share:
On Monday morning, Dec. 12, after having my bladder and prostate removed, I met with surgeon urologist, Dr. Daniel Janoff. When Janoff walked into my patient room, he looked directly at me, beamed and uttered two words summarizing my pathology report: “Completely cured!”
Omigod! Am I hearing correctly? Then, like a proper surgeon, he muttered, “Well, unless something microscopic gets through.”
That’s as good as it gets, and the insurance I bought into by undergoing major surgery seems to be worth this post-procedure pain and rigmarole.
Cancer Affects Everyone Differently
The elation I allow myself to feel adds to the joy of this 2016 holiday season and causes me to count my blessings. How many cancer sufferers endure the diagnosis of a malignant body part without years of heartache, excruciating pain and mind-numbing self-doubt? For many of them, they’re always looking over their shoulder dreading the day when it’s confirmed that cancer has made its way into other vital organs.
On the other hand, what are the ramifications to a cancer patient when he or she loses a reproductive organ?
At an art exhibit opening in Bucks County, I once became attracted to someone related to one of the most famous show-business families in America. We were so instantaneously enraptured that we began making out passionately on the second floor of the Lambertville, NJ gallery next to the Delaware River, in full view of everyone there, and I entreated her to see me again.
Upon calling her for the first time, though, she expressed inconsolable shame at having contracted ovarian cancer, saying she was no longer a real woman because her ovaries were being surgically removed. She asked that I never call her again, and hung up the phone. What horrible expectations some of us have while fighting cancer!
Other friends and relatives have faced the “Big C” diagnosis with far worse implications and over a far-longer period of time. Therefore, it makes sense for me to be stoic about sacrificing certain body parts. After 73 years of life in this state of consciousness, I rationalize that some organs can be regarded as irrelevant. Considering I was diagnosed with “high-grade” cancer – somewhere between Stage 3 and Stage 4 – this was no time to play coy with life choices.
Earlier This Year
My cancer ordeal started in March, after Providence primary care provider, Dr. Mathew Snodgrass, confirmed another in what was a series of urinary tract infections. He referred me to Dr. Janoff, a master urologist/surgeon. Janoff, one of the busiest surgeons I ever met, ordered a CT scan, and in May diagnosed my urinary problems as being caused by bladder cancer.
The wicked carcinoma, he said, was caused by the chemical additives U.S. cigarette manufacturers put into their products to enhance addiction. Throughout life, I always concerned myself with lung cancer. But bladder cancer? No way, I thought!
That’s why I recoil whenever I see anyone smoking a cigarette, and I retreat as far as I can get from the sweet seductive scent of tobacco smoke.
Looking back, I am grateful. My ordeal lasted only nine months. How many other cancer sufferers can say the same? My late uncle underwent years of deteriorating health from Lou Gehrig’s disease. How can I put my health challenges on the same plane as his?
I am one lucky guy.
Janoff recommended that before surgery, I undergo four rounds of chemotherapy, and oncologist Dr. Daniel Gruenberg at Compass Oncology kept an eagle eye on my changing blood work.
Three-and-a-half months of intense chemotherapy – consisting of Cisplatin and Gemzar – followed in July through early October at Compass’s location adjacent to Providence St. Vincent Hospital. When my white blood cell count dropped precipitously in September, an injection targeted my bone marrow to precipitate increased white cell formation. The stratagem – although quite painful days later – worked, enabling me to finish the course of treatment.
The surgery followed, and its results are now a matter of record.
Alice has been my confidante and partner throughout, although she would have preferred to see if cannabis oil alone would cause me to turn the corner. I decided otherwise, and she shares this victory without mollycoddling me through the rehabilitation process.
The future ahead, she declares, lies in writing my own book, and she asks that I focus more on such an effort. She is right, because we cannot continue our lives without seeking some semblance of adequate compensation for my creative work.
But on the eve of another Christmas Day, it’s time to spread some holiday cheer with my personal accomplishment. It’s no accident that Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve this year so whatever Jewish blood I inherited simultaneously shares season’s greetings with Christianity everywhere.
“They say ev’rything can be replaced
Yet ev’ry distance is not near
So I remember ev’ry face
Of ev’ry man who put me here
“I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released”
This photo was taken two days ago after I walked into Alice’s and my apartment on Portland, Oregon’s west side.
I am a post-operative rejuvenated human surviver after Dr. Daniel Janoff, an eminently qualified urologist, removed my diseased bladder, prostate and a nearby lymph node in an operating room at Providence St. Vincent’s Hospital on Tuesday, Nov. 29.
I am left to wonder what life will be like without ordinary manly attributes. Will my creativity be compromised? Will I be a shell of the man I once was? Will I be fun to be around?
Well, the true relevance is being able to contemplate essential questions. That’s a gift. No matter my mood, at least today I ponder such questions in my Mason Loika way.
I am alive. And a team of doctors and nurses in one of this nation’s great hospitals is responsible for that mean feat.
So let’s bless today and every breath I take. I have been RELEASED.
My hair is coming back! And my surgery takes place tomorrow morning, Tuesday, Nov. 29.
So what’s a one-time author and former lifestyle journalist to do? Wax philosophical?
Yes, indeed, so here goes.
Recruited to Be a Christian
After I opted for surgery a few weeks ago a few weeks ago, my brother Chris phoned and asked, “Have you accepted our Lord, Jesus Christ, as your personal savior?”
I did not take the question well. I responded by saying I went through the Christian born-again process at the age of 5. My conversion to matters about the Cross took place in 1948 in a Hialeah, Fla. assembly hall on a Sunday evening. My mother from English and Scottish descent, maiden name Johnston, had taken me to a Billy Graham crusade in a town infamous during the ’40s for notorious KKK-leaning denizens.
Graham’s ministry partner/music director was Cliff Barrows, who routinely set a tear-provoking introduction. Well-rehearsed words and background music inspired me to walk down an aisle along with others to dedicate our lives to Christ. With my penchant for singing in the shower, I eventually became a featured boy soprano on some of Miami’s more-notable, South Florida-produced religious TV programs.
At the age of 11, I attended the Columbus Boychoir School (now American Boychoir School) in Princeton, New Jersey, and played the piano for the First Presbyterian Church of Hialeah’s early-morning Sunday worship service. Without question, I was regarded then as a Christian.
But eventually, my spiritual practice metamorphosed during my hippie years in Los Angeles at the same time I became a deejay for K-POT, where “you’re always one hit away from another hit away.” I had my share of experiences in Southern California environs, some of which I’m planning to relate in my book, including becoming pals with three witches, one of whom worked in the district attorney’s office during Charles Manson’s reign of horror.
Looking Forth, Looking Back
Tonight, though, I come face to face with mortality, and I ask nobody in particular, “Was the promise of future everlasting life predicated on one Christian moment of testimony when I was a child? That’s what Billy Graham promised the assemblage – and me – back then.
But looking back at what I became, a few childhood experiences where I witnessed men and women being denied basic human rights because of their skin color, or religious practices, affected me greatly. It offended me even more than the pedophile encounter in Princeton. And as I grew up, I shuddered when my peers uttered crude remarks to people unknown to them. Unlike my brothers, I turned as brown as a berry on weekends on South Beach in the 1950s. That physical characteristic taught me plenty before my tan faded.
My family still related to me back then as a fellow Caucasian. Yet my musician father, Virgil, instructed the family to never make eye contact with an inhabitant of Miami’s Central Negro District when he drove us downtown. This was at a time when he wrote arrangements and played trombone for Louis Armstrong!
After Virgil’s suicide, in 1960 a Native American Mohawk, Ed Walters, tried to court my mother and catered to my brothers and me. Nevertheless that proud Mohawk was mercilessly humiliated in front of me and my brother, Jon, by two Village of Medley cops as we set off on an Everglades camping trip. Granted, Ed was full of “fire water” at 9 in the morning, but yes indeed, I saw enough cruelty to turn my blood red.
Over 40 years later, I enthusiastically auditioned as an extra for the 2013 movie “The North Star.” I wanted to portray a Quaker, but was cast instead as a cruel slave hunter, circa mid-1850s. The historical movie was shot in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the northern end of the Underground Railroad.
(I hate to admit what a bad actor I was, because saying the N-word with bigoted passion turned out to be contrary to my Quakerism, even with a mostly black production crew urging me on. The movie was released on schedule and, although you cannot identify me in the film, my name does appear in the credits. I know, because I bought my own copy of “The North Star” through Comcast.)
Putting It in Perspective
But that’s all history. As an openly professed devotee to meditation, I tell prospective joiners whereas prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening and opening oneself to a higher power. I find contemplation without any set agenda to be a pure spiritual practice, capable of raising one’s self-awareness. Albert Einstein’s spiritual leanings, I believe, are superior to much of the blather served up to spiritual wannabes.
That’s all the time I have left for musing, though. In a few hours, urologist Daniel Janoff and his surgical team will perform a six-to-seven-hour operation – beginning at 7:30 am – to remove my bladder and prostate at St. Vincent Hospital in Portland. I believe Creator will guide those hands to cut out the offending body parts and put the rest back together.
And if I’m approached by any more fervently proselytizing evangelicals as I face after-life issues, I will be tempted to tell them, “Please don’t bother me. I’m Jewish.”
My father’s origins are wrapped in mystery, so it could be true.
Meanwhile, I live in the present. Alice will keep my family and friends up to date with post-operative progress, and eventually I will write more – at least, I hope I do. I continue to tell friends that I deserve to survive longer so I can irritate people for a substantial period of time.
With age, I evolved, and I trust my closest allies will entrust St. Peter to welcome me through the pearly gates when my time is up. Personally, I will not deny Christ, but I intend to walk with arms outstretched welcoming the primordial ooze from whence I came.
Bodies might decay, but our spirits reign supreme forever. The only request I have about my demise is that, when it’s time, the end shall be simple, straightforward and as painless as possible.
Like Danawa, Grandfather Many Crows, and others before me, the spirit in this body identified as Mason Loika will never die. It shall pass over.
I survived four rounds of chemotherapy without one bout of nausea. My oncologist, Dr. Daniel R. Gruenberg, observed that I endured chemo better than 95 per cent of other patients who undergo the same cancer-killing infusions. Score one for the Loika and Johnston genes!
What lies ahead, though, is a surgical date with urologist Dr. Daniel Janoff, ostensibly in mid-November, to remove my bladder and prostate. A second opinion with a different surgeon seems to be all that lies between consciousness and a scalpel as I cross my T’s and dot my I’s. What will life be like without the essential tools of procreation? What will the effect be on my creative spirit?
Bladder Surgery, Cannabis Oil or Both?
Alice is opposed to the surgery. She monitors my daily intake of cannabis oil, reputed to keep cancer cells at bay, in hopes I will change my mind and follow that approach instead.
I disagree, even though I have more questions than answers. Sufficient evidence is being gathered that documents what Alice has learned: Cannabis oil helps fight cancer, but marijuana remains nationally labeled by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 substance. Because it’s been so vilified by law enforcement, in vitro observations in the laboratory remain the only medically factual evidence. Sufficient data must be gleaned through future human trials to learn precisely how much cannabis oil is needed to keep a high-grade cancer at bay.
The future suggests more-informed treatment options will be available for the next generation. In the meantime, though, I suspect my bladder’s integrity is compromised beyond repair, and enough successful bladder-removal surgeries have been performed that the prognosis is good for me to aggravate the world for years to come.
But isn’t it a bitch to know my cancer was caused by chemicals added to American tobacco products to make cigarettes addictive, but such deadly tobacco products are still legal to purchase over the counter? Whenever I see a sizable segment of the population huff and puff cigarettes here in Portland, I shudder at the future human cost.
Marijuana as Cancer Therapy
In the meantime, how many lives have been trashed through the enforcement of archaic marijuana possession laws that incorporate “Reefer Madness” propaganda into a ban on love, peace and happiness? DEA’s diehards dispute current scientific studies with the same fervor as climate-change deniers.
One great thing about living in Oregon: Medical and recreational cannabis is legal here. Also, I now possess a valid Medical Marijuana Card. That means my consumption can be discussed openly.
You might notice from recent photos that my hair has thinned considerably, although Dr. Gruenberg promises it will return. Because I prepared for bouts of nausea, without any occurring, my weight is up 15 pounds! Where’s the irony in that?
Local farmers are perfecting the process to completely remove THC from cannabis, because it’s been found to be a legitimate pain reliever. But more data is needed to let cancer sufferers make informed alternate decisions that avoid surgery. And I refuse to consider radiation.
In the meantime, what about Alice?
Alice’s Speech Continues to Progress
The woman who accosted me romantically six years ago is doing fine, but tremendously bored. Some aspects of her stroke, though, have become a godsend. Because of those invested in her therapy, as well as fellow couples comprised of a stroke survivor and caregiver, we occasionally encounter people who deal with the same issues. Most of them are well educated and a joy to be around.
We met a few of those at Alice’s aphasia camp that we attended on the Oregon coast the last weekend of August. In addition, while Alice took a nap, I sat in a rowboat while two nubile physical therapists took over the vessel using muscle power and shoulder grease galore. Should I feel ashamed to accede how idealistic, determined women can flaunt how much they are in better shape? Before we left the dock, I bragged how well I could row, but I proved useless.
Alice Steers ‘Betsy’ Into a Pole
One last piece of news: Alice tore up our Ford Escape’s right-hand front panel against a two-foot-high yellow pole to avoid a tractor-trailer swinging its load wide. For six days, our Ford Escape has been sitting in a repair shop waiting for The Hartford’s adjuster to approve its own surgery. It will take a couple weeks before I can Uber again, so Alice and I are pinching pennies accordingly.
In the meantime, I can use this time to sit in front of my computer and write. This post on my blog is long overdue, and I thank everyone for being patient while I find my writer’s cap again.
Pragmatically, I feel guilty about not making money to pay all the medical bills that are piling up, but I feel emotionally satisfied that I can renew my former identity as an author. Who can say what the future will bring?
On April 16, the CBS network was scheduled to telecast a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie entitled “Hear My Song,” based upon life at a school for musically gifted boys, a la the American Boychoir School in Princeton, NJ. The feature-length film, whose 2014 theatrical distribution carried the title “Boychoir,” starred Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Debra Winger, Kevin McHale and Eddie Izzard.
With no fanfare, the TV version was shelved in lieu of a repeat broadcast of “NCIS: New Orleans.” When asked why, Hallmark explained the cancellation on its Facebook page as follows:
“While the movie and actors were not intended to depict any particular individual, organization or institution, Hallmark was recently made aware of serious allegations of misconduct made many years ago at a school similar to the one depicted in the movie. After careful consideration, it was decided that the movie will not air on CBS, Hallmark Channel or Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.”
The serious allegations of misconduct refer to an April 16, 2002 exposé printed on the front page of the New York Times metro section about years of sex abuse at the American Boychoir School, known then as the Columbus Boychoir School.
After the cancellation of “Hear My Song,” filmed at the American Boychoir School that now touts itself as creating a “safe” environment, the school issued a statement on its Facebook page that said, “We do not seek to silence criticism.”
If that were so, the following story that I authored in January 2013 would have appeared in the Bucks County Herald. Instead, my editor killed it, citing the New Jersey school’s reputation for threatening legal action against stories of this sort.
I present it now, for the readers of this website. My motive for telling the story? At the time I was sodomized, I observed there was no mention – either in newspapers or “polite” conversation – of this kind of activity, other than general allegations of “molestation.” I was so ignorant that I thought “molesting” related to a poisonous burrowing animal: mole-sting, get it?
Now, 62 years later, I will no longer remain silent about this. Perhaps then the American Boychoir’s strategy of waiting for its past controversy to go away will change.
Many benefactors’ hopes were dashed when anecdotal stories were heard by “Hear My Song’s” distributors, and its airing was canned. It’s time to let some fresh air inside.
The photo above was taken of Albemarle in 2009, where boys resided until three years ago. As hard times beset the school, the stately home of the Boychoir was sold to be turned into condominiums. As an alumnus, I revisited the site of my youthful betrayal.
Sexual Predators Among Us
In 2013, a well-meaning, dewy-toned Quaker stood up during Buckingham Meeting’s silent worship to bemoan the sexual abuse at Penn State that has filled newspaper pages since its public discovery in 2011. She wrung her hands and cried, “If only we had known, if only we had known, we could have done something about it.”
Oh yeah? Is that right?
Something dramatic is necessary, because pedophiles are like cockroaches. You turn on the lights, and they scatter.
My first sexual experience, at the age of 11, was at the hands of a charismatic predator in Albemarle, a small palace with colonnades built by the founder of Warner Lambert Pharmaceuticals. After the perpetrator sodomized me, he “voluntarily” resigned his post as guidance counselor.
(Yes, it’s true. America’s premier training ground for musically gifted boys offered unchecked opportunities for vile rampages during the sexually repressed 1950s. I was there because of my boy-soprano voice and budding child-prodigy piano work, the oldest son of a professional musician who played trombone and wrote arrangements for each of the Dorsey Brothers’ bands.)
Even as dawn broke and news spread of his impending resignation, each and every one of the choirboys in residence that 1956 morning wept openly, as the guidance counselor said his personal goodbyes while his index finger twitched its usual invitation against the inside of my young hand.
The sexual violation occurred only once, but that was enough. You never forget your first time.
ABS strategy damages its reputation
Although future classmates in later decades won undisclosed settlements, I never filed suit against the Boychoir for several reasons. First and foremost, I never wished to sign away for money my right to speak about what happened. I could bide my time until what I say would do the most good. Now that I’m 73 years old, the time is right.
More importantly, though, was the quality of the education I received in Princeton. I learned at the American Boychoir School that it was acceptable to learn as much as you can as fast as you can. Our student-to-teacher ratio was often 6 to 1. Our teachers were the best of the best, and I thrived on the atmosphere.
As a prima facie example, I was able to attend a private Princeton University outdoor science lecture where Dr. Werner von Braun demonstrated how the three-stage rocket would work, long before Sputnik went into orbit. As I walked around Princeton’s Nassau Street, I often imagined what to do if I caught sight of Albert Einstein; he loved the town. While rehearsing, we boys learned how to stir an audience and, as a result, ourselves.
Ordinary was never good enough. How could I sue a school that did that – for me, or my classmates?
I slept in a room with five other boys. I believe one of them chose to become a whistle-blower after the institution’s guidance counselor fetched me for his self-indulging moment at 3 am. In return for confidentiality, one of my roommates could have told a teacher, or perhaps Columbus Boychoir founder Herbert Huffman himself. Why else did this pedophile resign so soon after my monstrous encounter? (In a letter to parents dated February 24, 1956, a letter from Huffman said the guidance counsel “had to take an indefinite leave of absence from School because of illness.”) Some unknown comrade probably saved my butt, figuratively and literally.
In 2008 as part of my alumni experience, I spoke with then-Boychoir president Dr. Charles Bickford about what happened to me in 1956. Bickford left the school soon thereafter. He and members of his staff never denied the plausibility of what I related to them. Leadership heading up the school continued to change, Albemarle was sold, the school changed location to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Plainsboro, NJ, and eventually left those auspicious grounds because of financial difficulty.
The American Boychoir’s position remains as it ever was: Its head is in the sand. Maybe the controversy will go away, they seemed to think. But such a position seems really stupid. How can such an esteemed institution in the education-rich environs of Princeton refuse to use its mid-20th Century history to heal survivors from unwanted sexual attention, not just from Princeton but from schools all over the country?
Keeping the system as is may work well for lawyers, but not so well for the survivors.
In June 2012, I drove past the bronze statue of Joe Paterno outside Penn State’s monstrous 104,000-plus-seat stadium at State College where former alumni gather to reflect on some of the newest revelations spewing forth like poisonous volcanic fumes. At home as I looked into the videotaped face of Penn State’s ex-assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the tape’s audio reminded me that the perpetual, generational cycle of cover-ups has yet to be broken. Countless lawyers profited from the generosity of the school’s historic benefactors and more young people considered themselves to be lifelong victims with little hope of regaining their tantalizing road to glory.
Legalized silences cause future slimy pedophiles to proliferate, and a new generation of brave whistleblowers find themselves poised to lift the cursed veil of politeness to once again peer into the seamy depths below.
How do we break this vicious cycle?
I think back on my behavior after that unwanted encounter, and I instinctively blamed a society that relegated conversations about sex to the darkest rooms and refused to turn the lights on. I began to rail against censorship. After all, the more you cover something up, the worse it becomes.
Predators thrive in darkness. My metaphor using cockroaches is apropos.
Statistics I recall about growing up in America purported that one of every three women is molested while growing up. For boys, the figure: one in four.
Do the math. That adds up to a lot of people keeping their mouths shut, whether for reasons of shame or convention. I believe keeping it all inside is far worse than letting it out, because victims of abuse face an ever-increasing toll as life goes on.
Those of us recovering from unsolicited sexual attention deserve a future where frank discussions about sex are no longer taboo. Sticking heads in the sand exasperated this whole mess in the first place.
In the Northeast’s hallowed corridors of high learning, good education is revered. Let’s heal the wounds of the past by coming out of the shadows.