Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Anecdote III: Midnight Cowboys

I had passed my written and oral exams for the DMA in May of 1969, after studying full time for three months.  Marge had been working full time as a long-term sub at a local high school the entire spring semester.  We had made plans to leave for Europe, flying on 7 September from LAX to Zurich.  We had saved $3000 and planned to stay for six months.  It turned out to be seven months and I had to borrow 700 from my life policy to make it back home.

So we left the house we were renting in Granada Hills and moved in with my dad and stepmother for the summer to avoid rent.  They loved having us around, actually.  Marge worked for a temp agency based on her Flying Fingers at the keyboard.  But I, almost the revered Dr. Dehning, got a job at Sears as a janitor.  Stores need to be cleaned at night, so we worked the graveyard shift from 11P-7A.

That store sparkled when it opened in the morning.  We were a crew of eight plus a foreman, all of whom were black except me and Mac, and Mac, it turned out, was gay.  I found this out after about a month one night at lunch (we got 45 minutes for it, plus two 15-minute breaks during our shift, thanks to the union).  One of our tasks was crushing all the boxes that were opened during the day.  It was a big machine in the floor that crushed them and then they had to be dragged out.  It required a two-man crew, and Mac and I were always sent down there to do it.  Maybe it was the WhiteGuys thing or maybe they thought I was gay, too.

Anyway, back to lunch.  One of the crew was about 6'6" and built like a Sequoia.  His name was Snake and he was the neatest guy; I liked him best.  So I asked him finally, "is Mac homosexual?"  "From his heart," Snake said.  Actually it came out 'frumis hawt.'  Turned out that Mac also had false teeth.  Hmm.  Snake really liked me, too, and he wasn't gay, thank god.  (We still said 'homo' or 'queer' in those days; 'gay' was a long way off.)

In addition to crushing boxes, other duties for the crew included cleaning sinks and toilets, mopping service floors, polishing mirrors and windows, and polishing floors.  In short, ensuring that the place was spic and span by 700.  We had weekly staff meetings run by our foreman, Charles, regarding techniques and the like: "Now I found out that some of you are cleaning the sinks by just wiping them down.  That's no good.  You gotta use (holding up a bottle) diss here Bab-O (emphasis on the O.")

I usually wound up polishing the floors with a big electric buffer and I did a damned fine job.  Those suckers gleamed when I finished with them. I was proud of my work. Take a look at how much floor space there is in a department store next time you go in one, you'll be impressed with my industry and diligence.  If nothing else, my patience (and no radios or ear phones to get me through the boredom).

All told, I'm very glad I had that experience.  Doing semi-hard, mind-numbing work with those men gave me an appreciation of what a lot of the work force had to live with on a daily basis.  Yeah, it paid well, but it grew old quickly and I was glad to leave at the end of August.  I never told those guys why I was leaving, and I sure as hell didn't tell them that I almost had a doctorate.  And nowadays, when someone is angry that garbage collectors and janitors make almost as much money as they do, I tell 'em, "They got it coming, you don't like it, then YOU go and collect garbage or clean toilets.  No one's stopping you."

I never did ask Mac why he had false teeth.

Next:  Billy Banker.  Stay tuned.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Anecdote II: Redeemed Wide Receiver

I've often said that in the next life I'd like to be either a jazz drummer or a wide receiver, especially the latter.  From a very young age I've loved throwing and catching a football.  I wanted to try out for my high school team but my dad didn't have the money to buy insurance so I signed up for band instead.  Probably a good thing; I was so skinny I'd have been broken in half.  I was disappointed but got over it.

So I just kept throwing and catching up until I lost my legs to the spinal cord injury.  For one golden moment though, I was a star wide receiver.  The quarterback was Larry Meredith, who is Don Meredith's cousin, so it runs in the families.  We were at a faculty picnic at UOP in the early fall of '75 not long before Megan was born (Marge was really pregnant).  I was in a bit of political trouble at the time because my Dean wanted me out and there had been a campus-wide uprising in support of me in a struggle that began in the fall of '73.

Anyway, the President had been sympathetic to the problem and I had been fully reinstated but my dean was making life miserable.  The President was there at the picnic, watching a few of the male faculty goofing off.  Larry and I had been playing pitch-and-catch.  We decided to do one more.  I went out on a deep fly pattern, Larry threw it long, hard and high.  Somehow I climbed high enough to make a gorgeous catch.  It garnered scattered applause and the President had seen it.  He came up to me and said, "Bill, Chester Caddas [the football coach at the time] is looking for you!"

That catch cemented my job; the Dean was gone by June of '76.  They just couldn't get rid of a musician who was a decent athlete, too.  Would you?  Anyway, I still love college football, most of all the passing game because many of the receivers are so shifty, smooth and quick.  It's artistry in motion, to use a cliché.  It's beautiful to watch, and I love it, God help me, despite the moral morass in which college sports are mired.

As Larry said in the acknowledgements section of his book, Life Before Death: ". . .  William Dehning, whose neurons fire in harmonic convergence of music, sport, and ectomorphic id."


Larry is quite possibly the most intelligent man I know.  And he loves sports, too. He is the originator of the Turkey Bowl, a post-thanksgiving day event in which the old guys played the young guys and quite often won.  One year, a game played in the rain, I was declared Most Valuable Player after I caught two touchdowns from Larry, for the only scores of the game.  One of my proudest moments as a wide receiver.  And my career was over.

Until the next life.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Anecdote I: Dock Donkey; Nude Redhead; Shtupping Janis

I withdrew failing from UCLA in May of my sophomore year, 1962.  Reasons for the Withdraw Failing were three: I was dumped by my girlfriend for the second time; I was a stupid fraternity boy; I was conducting my first choir ever (I was social chairman of the fraternity and got the coolest Jewish sorority to join with us in Spring Sing--choir numbered 50, I conducted them: my first choir) and kept missing classes.  By the way, I qualified for UCLA's engineering school out of high school, a fact of which I am to this day very proud.  UC took only the top 5% of high school classes in those years and cost $75/semester to attend; essentially free, as California state universities were intended to be before Ronald Reagan, who hated educated people. His Party still does.

Spoiler Alert:  I got back into UCLA in 1964; I left the fraternity; we lost Spring Sing but the girls made me an Honorary Jew; I acquired my first church choir job later in 1962.


So I was out of school in the spring of 1962, but my high school friend Jan Butler was working for Republic Freight lines at a great hourly wage and suggested I apply; I had to do something besides stay at home and flog my guitar, so I did.  I applied, got the job and was forced to join the Teamsters Union and give dues with each paycheck; I didn't mind that because the job paid so well, thanks to the union.  And yeah, there were a few 'thugs.'  Hoffa was still alive, after all.  I guarantee: there are no 'thugs' any more, much as the Right Wing would love for you to believe otherwise.

The reason it paid so well is that it was damned hard donkey work.  Jan and I had to work the graveyard shift from 1100 to 700 AM.  Republic was located off of San Pedro street in downtown LA.  The task consisted of unloading freight cars outside the dock and walking the pieces on flats that we pulled up and down the dock and then dropping the freight right outside the trucks on the other side of the dock that would move the freight throughout the city (drivers loaded their own trucks at 700AM).  The flats were heavily loaded and the dock was fifty yards long.  Talk about beasts of burden . . . And when the RR car was full of appliances, we had to move each one out to its designated truck by hand if it weighed under 600 lbs.  This was done with a large hand truck that we had to 'break down' and then push along the dock.  If it weighed more than 600 lbs. we could yell for a forklift and they would take it for us.  I once had a refrigerator that weighed 597 and yelled for the forklift.  He came and asked what it weighed.  I told him.  He said, 'take it yourself.'  Forklift operator was a top level union job and the men who operated them were big wheels and knew it.

We worked in crews of four: a caller, a checker, and two donkeys.  The caller said what the item was, the checker checked it off on the bill of lading, and the donkeys (Jan and I) did the hard work.  Callers and checkers did not have to go into the rail car to 'break out' the boxes and hump the freight up and down the dock. 

Then there was a foreman and an assistant foreman.  The foreman was a really neat, honest, hardworking guy who just helped in general, at times operating a forklift.  I don't know what the assistant did, but he belonged to a nudist camp out near San Berdoo.  Jan and I were a folk duo (later a quartet) that sang gigs (always for free) and he asked us to come with him on a weekend to the camp and entertain.  So we recruited our friend Mike Seeley to borrow a string bass and play along.

Nudists put their clothes on at night and take them off in the day, the opposite of normal people.  So when we sang our gig on Saturday night (we arrived Friday afternoon), they danced to the slow tunes and listened to the fast ones.  This was after watching nude volleyball, flopping johnsons and all, during the day, as well as nude swimming of course, not to mention nude eating and other things.  I was really attracted to a really well built redhead that I saw dressed at night.  She invited us to breakfast the next morning, so we undressed and had bacon and eggs nude.  Red was sitting right across from me at the picnic table and I dropped my fork on the ground.  When I bent down to get it I was able to verify that she was indeed a true redhead.  We later dated a couple of times but couldn't seem to deepen our relationship with clothes on.  And apparently she wasn't inclined to deepen the relationship with clothes off, either, so that was that.

I made a good chunk of money that summer (thanks to the union) and managed to buy a really fine Goya guitar that I taught myself to play when off work.  That guitar cost 200 1962 dollars, which was a big deal, believe me.  But it was sweet, baby.  I later had to sell it as well as my fine Olympia typewriter because I was broke and had to buy car insurance.  Know who one of the prospective buyers was?  Country Joe McDonald, of Janis-Joplin-affair and Woodstock-Gimme-an-F(UCK) cheer.  Joe and I went to the same high school; he was a fine trombone player in the band in which I played horn, but picked up the guitar early on and that stuck, I guess you might say.  He was a year ahead of me and went on to fame, fortune, and nude album covers, whilst I, now guitarless and with no Redhead, got married, went back to school, got three degrees and made a career flogging choirs instead of guitars.

If you read the  previous two posts, you will see why I'm glad I did.  Joe is still alive and doing well, by the way, as am I.

Next: Redeemed Wide Receiver.  Watch this space.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What Teachers Live For II (with surprised thanks to Paul Blankinship)

  •  Dr. Dehning,

     Thank you for connecting with me on Facebook. I don't know if you remember me or not - I don't think I was a particularly memorable student - but as a student of yours at UOP, I not only learned a great deal, but ended up a very different person.
    I was motivated to write to you because I met a colleague of yours, Megan Solomon (I hope that's right) at an event for new students at Oberlin college (where my son is heading, as is her daughter).
    We got to talking, and I told her what I've told several people - that being a part of your class was one of the few defining moments in my life, and that I caught a glimpse of the person that I wanted to become there.
    She suggested I write to you to let you know how strongly you influenced me as a student, and then as an adult - so that's the reason I decided to write.
    One thing I feel you should know is that I wasn't a student with ambition or direction - I didn't know choral music or vocal music. I also didn't stay in school, both because I ran out of money, and because I lacked the perspective to know how to focus myself and my energies.
    And yet - despite that - I ended up making a life as a musician, mostly as a cocktail pianist and accompanist for jazz singers, but also leading a number of very good choirs, because I valued what I saw you do, and because I saw how you took music generally, and choral music specifically, seriously, and how you respected music and your musicians with the literature and technique you brought to bear.
    The idea I'd like to convey is that even those of us who must have seemed mediocre musicians and students were raised by your example and teaching. I'm sure the cream of the crop would have done well anywhere, but I never could have done any of what I did without having had your influence in my life.
    As I said at the beginning of this note, I wasn't a memorable student. I hope you know that for every one of those memorable students whose success marks your career, there are others, like me, who look at the time they spent in your class and wonder how they got so goddamn lucky.

    All the very best to you,