Thanks to everyone for your enjoyable birthday remembrances. Facebook is, indeed, a social medium.
The photo above was made possible by my one-time sister-in-law, Mary Schenck, who called a Longview bakery on Commerce Avenue named the Sugar Pearl. Mary asked if they could prepare an Amaretto liqueur cake to make my 80th milestone birthday a special one to remember.
Boy, did they! Not only did I receive a VIP-worthy delivery from the bakery’s owner, but this sweetheart of an all-natural-ingredients marvel measures 8 inches in diameter and 4¼ inches in height. That’s mammoth!
I attempted to take a selfie sitting next to the cake, but it doesn’t do justice to either of us. I’ll post it anyway, because the pressure now is on. I must make a dinner worthy of this sweet introduction to my dining room. What about spare ribs? And what about a sauce that celebrates my father when he functioned as a sous chef at the Waldorf-Astoria? Over egg noodles, of course.
I haven’t left this plane of existence, yet. I’m sticking around, because I have to finish this book-length homage praising the pitfalls of life. I survived because of some dedicated women who loved me, and it’s time I give something back.
As the first-born child of a Hungarian émigré, I had two reasons to avoid my father, Virgil. The primary escape was to avoid him, because he would spank me for no reason at all. Lately, though, I remembered a second reason. I had so much respect for his talent arranging music for big-band jazz bands that I gave him privacy.
I learned about politics when I was admonished to play “duck and cover” at Hialeah Elementary School in 1952 Florida. Russia presented itself as an alternative to the “evils of capitalism,” threatening a holy nuclear war, while chiding the U.S. around the world for the sanitized “I Like Ike” way we treat black folks.
That resonated with freedom-loving people I knew. Unfortunately, anyone who licked at the mud puddle of freedom expressing sympathy for the unprivileged could wind up accused of being a communist, a cruel twist of logic. This version of America hid its own dark history. Since then, I’ve grown up, resisted various forms of deception, and I’m not ashamed to say I became a liberal.
You, Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, have shown yourself willing to use the dark forces of deception to hide a shameful childhood.
Your grandfather was the personal chef to Joseph Stalin. Joseph Stalin! And what did he teach you? A message directly related to bigotry.
You regard Ukrainians to be an inferior race compared to pure Russian royalty. Inferior! You’re doing the same thing you philosophically attacked America’s conscience for practicing in the 1950s. In 2022, you advocate a new dark policy for your people, resulting in an invasion. An invasion!
So I see through you. For a long time, I’ve been around people who carry racial hatred and speak with a politically correct tongue. Don’t try to fool me.
You’re a despot in drag. And you just woke up the world.
My previous post showed I am writing again. It didn’t disclose what memories I uncovered during the fire.
I was knee-deep in creating the book Alice wanted me to write, currently titled, “Confessions of a Boy Soprano.” That’s when a neighbor fulfilling a relatively pedestrian task – killing weeds – interrupted my progress for more than six months.
The inappropriate tool for the task – a mini-blowtorch – set fire to the townhouse that Alice and I created, and the pleasant ambience she lent was obliterated in one careless act. There is no scent left behind; she is gone. To say I felt vindictive doesn’t tell the whole story. During the summer, my feeling of devastation was complete, and interactions with family or relatives reflected anger.
One week short of being declared a Quality Inn resident (five fucking months!), ServPro informed me I could move back home. The repainting and re-carpeting of the entire second floor was complete, and I would be able to use my office and bedroom again. Because the people who cleaned my bedding and anything else cleanable were scheduled to return all contents on Tuesday, Sept. 21st, I made preparations. “I was in high cotton,” as my late mother would say.
Even though I never spent the night in the smoke-affected townhouse, I used my unit’s washer and dryer every two-three weeks, allowing me to survive on a limited clothes’ supply. Therefore, I came back on Monday, a day before all my clothes would be returned, with plans to wash and dry my dirty ones. Once the fire damage restoration service, FRSTeam, would bring everything back clean, I could be set to write again!
No such luck.
When I put my cold-water wash inside the washer, added a Tide pod, turned on the water and listened gleefully to the sound, I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
For only thirty seconds. Thanks to the carpet installer downstairs, my feelings of joy were interrupted.
“There’s water coming down the light fixture,” he yelled. Feeling panicky, I shut off the washer.
I called ServPro, and Luna immediately showed up to determine the painter had removed the hose from the washer and, after painting the walls and ceiling behind them, had not bothered to replace the hose. No warning, no sign and no person to shield me from doing my wash.
Therefore, another claim had to be filed with Allstate, an employee washed and dried my clothes at ServPro’s facility, returned them to the motel, and I was not allowed to return to my condo for another two weeks. This felt like premature ejaculation.
With my tale of woe, and Ned Rauth’s demise, that poor man’s soul became a visible target to be shunned for my six months of banishment from home. No other significant creative energies, other than micro-managing ServPro, were spent positively.
Today I am left to wonder what effect the act of shunning might have contributed to his demise. If I dare to call myself a Quaker, what should I have done otherwise? Although shunning is regarded as non-violent, could it be considered otherwise? Should I summon my late wife’s spirit at Halloween, so I am not to blame?
Of all the comments to my last post, one particular comment affects me most: paraphrasing it says I should be grateful I was not injured and remain in one piece. But something else needs to be reported.
Because of the fire and having all my memories uprooted, I opened a box marked, “Computer & audio-video cables” followed by “Bridge Books.” I was ready to throw it out, but to confirm its contents, I opened it.
On top was a cloth-bound Baby Book shown above, which my mother, Thelma Johnston, created on the day of my birth, March 23, 1943. Apparently, it was a tradition no longer the rage during this millennium. My Baby Book contains the movements, measurements and doctor’s findings of my first two years of life, accompanied by 1943’s Halloween-day declarations by my godmother and godfather.
Underneath is correspondence my father and mother sent one another in the 1940s while he was playing club dates around the country, especially Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills.
Here are the revelations I discovered in my Baby Book. My godmother was Queen Brantley, a dearly beloved ancestor. But I am stunned to discover my godfather was Horace Gerlach, known to be Louis Armstrong’s trusted creative advisor. No wonder I performed Mozart’s most famous sonata for Louis himself! My Baby Book is family history preserved.
So yes, I am grateful. How else should I feel knowing the fire could have destroyed such a precious memento? How else should I feel, other than gratitude? I have been blessed.
No one should mistake my criticism of how I lost my virginity at the American Boychoir School as a condemnation of the institution itself. A previous post on my website goes into detail here. Followup posts can be viewed here, here and here.
Its founder, Herbert Huffman, dedicated his life to growing a selected cadre of gifted musical boys into a nationally beloved choir in Columbus, Ohio. Huffman oversaw its move and transition to the academically elite community of Princeton, NJ, where boys explored a community where they learned it was acceptable to learn as much as they could – as fast as they can.
That’s quite a contrast to the peer group pressure exerted by boys in Miami’s suburbs of Hialeah and Miami Springs, where I grew up. When I returned there in the 9th grade, classmates asked me not to do so well academically, “because it makes the rest of us look badly.”
I coasted, and made straight A’s. That’s how outstanding my Princeton education was.
More than 50 years after a twisted genius by the name of Donald Bryant orchestrated a loss of institutional control, the Princeton-based Boychoir’s inmates have finally taken over. Some of what transpired was revealed in well-written investigational stories by the New York Times and New Yorker magazine. Boychoir management only sought to quash these sensational revelations, revealing a serious disdain for transparency.
After I wrote my own story here of encountering a sexual predator, I heard enough response to sense a troubling undercurrent of suspicion resided in the surrounding area of Bucks and Mercer counties from women who had married previous members of the Boychoir. The lid of damnation that caused editors to censor stories about the American Boychoir had backfired. Eventually, bankruptcy was the only course the venerable institution had left.
The people I refer to as “inmates” are its new leaders, men who have matriculated through many of life’s pitfalls. They are accomplished in their fields and recognize what the Boychoir meant to them and its potential to future generations.
According to Kris Brewer, spokesman for the resurrection committee, “It is a shared sentiment and goal to make sure that if we are successful … that acknowledgment, transparency, learning, prevention and healing are essential to the success of the Foundation and a future ABS… We are not interested in keeping silent about or hiding the past. It does no one any good now or in the future.”
Chet Douglass and Aaron Smyth are joining Brewer to step forward as a triumvirate and promulgate a concept as time-honored as Christianity itself – a resurrection.
My personal story is meant to bequeath their cause far more than the $10 gift I donated; it is meant to inspire Messrs. Brewer, Douglass and Smyth to continue and persevere.
Back in the winter of 1955, I auditioned for Herbert Huffman, founder of the Columbus Boychoir. I don’t recall much of that audition, except it took place in Coral Gables. I remember Huffman as a gentle soul, whose interest in great music was legendary.
I remember my mother spoke with Huffman privately after I sang for him. I don’t know if she told him about my father, Virgil, but he was a tormented musical genius who once played with each of the Dorsey brothers in New York City, but evolved into a frustrated musician who savagely and frequently beat me for no reason at all.
At home, I had retreated into a private world in which I pretended to be a television programmer. (The quality of my first journalism gig – a TV writer – reveals how much I used media for an escape.) I developed a good singing voice by singing in the shower, and my mother, Thelma, who played piano for the First Presbyterian Church in Hialeah, hoped to get me away from my father’s physical abuse.
I was chosen, an unlikely selection because of the pigment of my skin. During the spring, summer and falls of my life, Virgil took my family to South Beach where we played with other boys on the soft sloping sands along the Atlantic Ocean. The constant exposure of the sun on my skin darkened me considerably; however, brothers Jon and Chris turned red from the exposure and suffered with serious sunburns. I sometimes burned, but kept getting darker and darker.
At Albemarle, where I lived in a dormitory setting with the other choirboys, I never thought of myself as outside the cultural norm until one day. We previewed a never-before-seen video film taken of us while performing a sacred choral piece. Each choirboy – one by one – was paraded before a camera while singing a Christmas hymn. The film was ready and edited with sound, and we were the first to enjoy it.
Because I tried not to care, my nonchalance was rewarded. I never saw myself! But some other boys said they had, so the film was rerun for my benefit. I didn’t see anything distinctive, except for an apparent Negro boy who walked through. I recognized almost everyone else. Who was that black kid?
“That’s you!” the other boys exclaimed. “Look again.”
Once again, the film was rewound to where I walked through. After strong urging, I recognized some of my features. I was the black one!
No way, I thought. What was going on?
After all these years, I think I understand. Because of the lighting used in the newspaper and on TV channels that was specific only to me, I appeared white and Caucasian. Compared to the other boys at the school, though, the camera portrayed me as dark.
Herbert Huffman chose me despite my complexion, because he saw the potential of my musical gifts. I played piano well, and I was a decent second soprano. So Huffman rescued me from my father.
I never revealed these details before, so you, readers of this blog, know them for the first time ever.
I saved and scanned the official story about me written courtesy of Jay Morton, publisher of the Hialeah Home News who on Feb. 11, 1955, announced my selection to the Columbus Boychoir.
(By the way, Jay Morton was no ordinary publisher. After studying art at the Pratt Institute in New York, receiving a master’s degree in Paris, he had moved to Miami to write and draw the animated cartoon, “Superman,” for Fleischer Studios. He was responsible for describing Superman as “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” He also drew Felix the Cat, Betty Boop and Popeye.)
As publisher of the Hialeah Home News, in the 1940s and ’50s, he ran a one-man crusade to drive the Ku Klux Klan out of Hialeah. He passed away on Sept. 6, 2003, the same day as my late brother Jon’s birthday. I am proud to share the text of his article verbatim, especially because it contains no typos, as follows:
When state and national honors are passed out, and individual achievements are brought to the attention of the American public, it’s a source of pride to Hialeah-Miami Springs that local residents come in for a goodly share of the limelight.
Latest addition of this roll of honor is little Mason Loika, son of Mr. and Mrs. Virgil Loika, 810 N.E. Third pl., Hialeah. Mason left this week for Princeton, N.J. where he won a scholarship at the nationally famous Columbus Boychoir School.
Mason looks like any other boy who is almost 12. His brown locks have a tendency to be unruly with a cowlick indicating, as the saying goes, bedevilment. But just let Mason don his choir-robe – a long, black, monk-like skirt, a white, wide-sleeved tunic, and a big, black bow under his chin …
Then he’s transformed into an angel, and surely sings like one.
That’s what Herbert Huffman, director of the Boychoir, thought when he auditioned Mason at the University of Miami two weeks ago. Huffman and his boys’ ensemble were here for a concert, and the Loikas felt fortunate when he consented to hear Mason’s voice.
Their joy was irrepressible when Huffman offered the boy an $800 scholarship at the non-sectarian school. But finance reared its ugly head. A year’s tuition, room and board, costs $1,600. The Loikas could raise $400 on their own, but where was the other $400 coming from?
That’s when Mrs. Loika came to the Home News (he is a Home News carrier) to pick up Mason’s papers. The story came out, and Publisher Jay Morton resolved that, if he could be of help, this opportunity and honor would not be bypassed.
Morton has been on the phone soliciting support from the city’s civic organizations and this week when Mason departed it looked as though his dream would come true. The pledges aren’t all in yet, but the Loikas are proceeding on faith.
Mason’s father is now employed at Pan-American, but he has 25 years as a professional musician behind him. He gave his son all the training he could. Mason’s mother, a music-teacher and music instructor for kindergarten, has been giving him piano lessons.
At Princeton, Mason will have a regular curriculum which will cover at least what he’s learning now in the seventh grade at Hialeah High. He’ll also have choir practice twice a day, plus individual voice training.
The Columbus Boychoir is renowned throughout the country. Besides appearing at festivals and secular gatherings, the boy choristers have been heard on national hook-ups of radio and television, and in recordings. They were on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” at Christmas. They always “bring the house down” at every concert they appear in.
Just as Mason won applause at the Kiwanis club luncheon on Tuesday. While his mother accompanied him, his childish treble rose in melody and he won the hearts of the Kiwanians.
Take a good look at the photo above. In 2002, I wrote and co-published my first book, Gulag to Rhapsody by Paul Tarko, and appeared with Paul at book signings. My name appears on its cover below his, because Paul Tarko’s life mirrors an ideal protagonist for my narrative nonfiction account entailing more than 300 printed pages.
Because my father, who took his life when I was 16, had an honorable lineage in Hungary, writing about Paul – 43 years later – reconnected me with my Hungarian/Romanian heritage.
The picture above is apropos, because my purpose in Oregon is to reappear in a similarly posed photo – this time, alone. Alice brought me here to write another book – this time, about my own life. “Write what you know best,” I once was coached by a writing instructor. My life is what I know best; accordingly, I am destined to be its sole author.
I am here at the behest of Alice McCormick, who shed tears upon reading my early poetry, calling me a good writer. Considering how writers/authors must endure a modest existence as part of their nature, I need to use my new location well.
Throughout all our struggles, Alice sees the best in precarious situations, and this attitude tempers my dark depression when it comes to our finances. Whether it’s blissful unawareness or an unwillingness to comprehend simple math, she answers frequent moods of bottom-line depression with the kneejerk retort, “Well, everyone is in debt.”
I find her logic difficult to refute. Her steady, rosy attitude snaps me out of darkness, because I am forced to dampen a torrent of fierce impatience. Brightening my mood remains a constant challenge for her.
Sometimes, I make her laugh. Other times, I frustrate her and exasperation leads into loquaciousness; on occasion, she expresses an emotional soliloquy without the usual speech aphasia frustrations from her stroke in March. Whenever she appears to take one step back, she advances two steps. And I rejoice!
I unintentionally piss her off for such breakthroughs to occur. But I fervently wish our exchanges would not be so tempestuous, because emotionally they’re hard on me.
The last five weeks were a challenge. I spent five days a week as an Uber driver beating the bushes for passengers in Portland, and at times its well-publicized phenomenon appeared to be slacking off. Uber continues to seek more drivers, diluting demand; in its defense the “ride-sharing” service is also lowering the wait time for passengers who order its transportation on their smartphones.
The influx of revenue has enabled us to build up the required security deposit to move to an affordable apartment with a year-long lease. And last week, I secured the funds to hire someone to move our possessions.
These added resources come with a heavy price, though. Most days I am no longer home to work with Alice on speech exercises, so her path forward becomes lonely and treacherous. She misses our camaraderie and stays to herself.
Creator gave me Alice. Every time I get too full of myself, she brings me back down to size. My head often gets too big for such a fragile body, so it seems like it’s her mission to make my personality tolerable.
Alice brought me to Oregon with a purpose: She would work in childcare, and I would write my next book. Two weeks ago, the Hillsboro manager of KinderCare gave Alice a regular two-hour-a-day morning shift five days a week, and she began managing the babies and infants there with playful enthusiasm.
We are trying to lessen how much I drive, so I can be here to support Alice’s recovery while renewing a regular daily writing schedule. There is much work to do to create a book about myself and my family background. The pages on this website entitled “Virgil’s Story” are a sample of what is to appear in print.
In early August, Alice received a financial token of support from her best friend to help us. We acknowledge the feelings expressed, and we promise to keep moving forward.
I have a working title for the book, which has been shared with only a few. My close confidantes express support for the project, but it’s up to me to write the book and get a prospective publisher excited.
I wish I could wave a magic wand and proceed with the confidence that comes with following a well-traveled plan of action. But every day offers a new challenge, so both of us keep putting one foot in front of the other.
For the next couple weeks, this website will not be updated until our move to new digs is complete and Internet service reestablished. Stay tuned.