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Full CircleA Dream Denied, A Vision Fulfilled
By Theodore Jerome Cohen
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 Theodore Jerome Cohen
All right reserved.
The radio alarm went off at exactly 4:30 AM, dutifully beckoning though hardly needed. Dr. Theodore Stone, or "Teddy" as he is known to his closest friends, had been lying awake staring at the ceiling for the better part of thirty minutes, thinking about the trip he was about to undertake, a trip back to his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a journey back in time.
Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" from WRTI-FM, Temple University's broadcast service, had shattered the quietude of the morning before he could reach the radio and silence it. It would be hours before the station's format changed to the classical music to which he was more attuned. No matter; there was no time to listen. Susan, his wife of forty-some years, was still asleep. She would not be accompanying him on this flight because she was needed at her job in suburban Philadelphia, where she worked as the special assistant to an executive in a publishing company. She would, however, follow along in a few days.
Teddy was pleased that Susan understood the importance of this trip. She had made his airline reservations well in advance. In the days prior to his departure, she also had had his favorite suitcleaned and pressed, and had packed it and his other clothes neatly in one small suitcase that could be checked at the airline counter. She even had scheduled a car and driver to pick him up at 5:00 AM so that he would have plenty of time to make the early Wednesday morning Midwest Airlines' flight direct to Milwaukee from Philadelphia International Airport.
At the vanity, he finished buttoning his shirt and ran a brush through his brown, thinning hair. He could not help but notice that the lines and creases from years of hard work were getting deeper around his mouth, and he wondered if growing a beard would improve his appearance. Probably not! he muttered to himself. And besides, there would be hell to pay in the Stone household if he even started one. He recalled what happened when he returned to the United States from Antarctica decades earlier with a beautifully trimmed beard and mustache, the envy of everyone on the base at which he had been working. In a phone call with Susan, whom he was dating at the time, she suggested in no uncertain terms that he think seriously about returning to his daily shaving habit-immediately-before he even returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Moving quickly to the kitchen, he spotted a gray Cadillac sedan idling in the cul-de-sac in front of their home. There still was time for a light breakfast, after which he walked to the bedroom and kissed Susan good-bye. Grabbing his violin case, plane tickets, and suitcase, he let himself out through the front door and took a seat in the back of the waiting car. As the driver pulled out of their gated community and headed for I-95 south, Teddy smiled. So, he mused, this is what it finally has come to. He was, of course, thinking about the fact that he was heading to his first professional engagement as a violin soloist, something his father, Solly, had dreamed about and first envisioned almost sixty years earlier. Teddy looked out the limousine window into the first light of the new day and thought about his father.
"Solly" was the name affectionately given to him by his mother and sisters; the name on his birth certificate was "Sol." He was the fourth child in a family of seven children-three boys and four girls. His father, Toni, was fortunate to have escaped the Russian pogroms with his life and make it safely to the United States as part of the massive wave of immigrants that crashed onto its shores in the mid-to late 1800s. After a failed attempt as a Hebrew teacher in Manhattan, he traveled to Milwaukee, following a friend's suggestion. Once there, he wrote to Sarah Bockshotzke, whom he knew in Russia, and asked her to join him. She did, and a year later, they were married. About the same time, Toni, together with his older brother Azar, started a tobacco shop that they called Badger Tobacco. With hard work, the business prospered. Toni, forever grateful for his success and the opportunities given to him, repaid his adopted country by acting as an advocate for newly arriving immigrants, a service he performed at no charge to the community.
Over time, Azar brought his three sons into the tobacco business, and the four eventually took control of the company, forcing Toni out. After that, it was exceedingly difficult for Toni to support his family. The stress was almost too much for him to bear, and as his smoking habit intensified from the uncertainties of making a living, so too did the violent coughing fits that marked his daily awakenings. He died one morning of a massive heart attack, almost a year to the day after being asked to leave Badger Tobacco.
Toni and Sarah's two eldest children, Charles and David, finished civil engineering school with help from their father while Toni still was working at the tobacco store. But with little family money available to help with his educational expenses, Solly, the third son, had no choice but to work his way through trade school. A quick study, he rapidly acquired the formal mechanical engineering skills needed to enter the work force and, once out of school, worked as a shop foreman in several southeastern Wisconsin shipyards and manufacturing concerns. It was during this time that Solly, a handsome young bachelor, met a beautiful brunette by the name of Myrtle Rubinstein, who worked as a secretary for a dry goods company in Milwaukee. Myrtle-who played the piano, enjoyed horseback riding (Solly was an expert horseman who had won many awards at local equestrian events, including jumping competitions), and loved children-fascinated Solly. They were married on Christmas day, 1935, and spent a few days in Chicago on their honeymoon before returning to work. With the outbreak of World War II, Solly took a management position at a munitions factory in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, that produced anti-aircraft shells. When the war in Europe ended, however, he moved his family to Milwaukee. There, with guidance from his brother-in-law, Harry Rubinstein, he first struggled but ultimately succeeded in forming the Oakland Manufacturing Company, an electronics parts corporation, a few months after the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific.
Solly's interest in music came from his father, of that there was no doubt. Toni, a graduate of Harkof University in Minsk, was well educated in literature, languages, and the arts; his two greatest loves were classical music and opera. With the success of Badger Tobacco, he was able to build a large collection of phonograph cylinders, replacing the fledging collection that he was forced to leave behind when he fled Russia. He then went on to create a large collection of gramophone (or phonograph) recordings. Nothing gave him greater joy than to spend evenings in the parlor with his children, cigarette in hand, listening with them to his recordings and sharing his knowledge of music.
As a boy, Solly liked nothing better than to play his father's recordings, sitting on the floor of the parlor and listening to the likes of Enrico Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba for hours at a time. He imagined himself in an audience somewhere, perhaps a concert hall, dressed in the formal wear of the day with a car and chauffer waiting outside to bring him home. The concerts and operas to which he listened gave him a deep and enduring appreciation for music that grew and became more refined with each passing day. And as he grew to manhood, he, like his father, built one of the finest, most extensive collections of phonograph recordings imaginable. The emergence of commercial broadcasting in the early 1920s provided access to an even greater number of artists and their music for him to enjoy.
Teddy thought about his father's office. It was always filled with classical music pouring from the old Philco radio-phonograph on his desk. The music seemed strangely out of place in such a noisy, dust-filled environment as a manufacturing plant. Whenever he thought about that office, he could almost smell the banana oil lacquer that was used to seal wires on the various coil forms and loop-antenna assemblies produced at the factory.
Solly could not carry a tune, and he did not play an instrument. There was little time for lessons while he was growing up. Instead, in addition to his extensive record collection, he sought to satisfy his intense love of music primarily through his children's musical talents. This meant he spared no effort in securing music teachers for Teddy and his younger siblings: a brother, Ron, and a sister, Diane.
By age six, Teddy was taking piano lessons. His teacher, Miss Verges, a spinster in her fifties, was associated with the Marwood Studios, which was housed in an old mansion on Marshall Street, not far from the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan. With Solly working late most nights and Myrtle needed at home to care for Ron and Diane, the Stones had no recourse but to ask that Grandpa Joe, Myrtle's father, take Teddy downtown for his weekly piano lessons.
Grandpa Joe-his real name was Joshua Rubinstein-emigrated from Suwalki, Russia, in the late 1800s at the urging of his brother, Abe, who had emigrated earlier and settled in Milwaukee. Joshua was so fascinated with the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he landed, however, that he stayed there, briefly selling apples on the streets of New York-two for a penny-before strapping a portable Singer sewing machine on his back and plying the streets of the City's Garment District looking for piece work. One hundred years later, Rodger Kamenetz must have had Joshua in mind when he described the history of families such as Teddy's this way:
The history of my family is the history of breezes. And the exodus, the getaway: my grandfathers, one carrying a barber pole, the other a tailor's needle.
Grandpa Joe loved to tell Teddy stories about his days as a young man on the streets of Manhattan. One tale was so outrageous that just the slightest mention of what happened made them both laugh hysterically.
It seems that while walking through the Garment District one morning, Joshua came across his friend Yaakov, a rag merchant by trade, whose tired old horse had lain down on the cobblestone street and refused to get up and pull the man's wagon. Nothing the man did, which included beating the horse with a stick, could get that horse to budge!
"You call this a problem?" yelled Joshua in Yiddish, his voice slicing through the cacophony of street noise and general pandemonium that was the essence of commerce in the New World. Grandpa Joe had the habit of issuing statements or answering questions with a question.
"I can't get this damn horse to stand up, Joshua!" shrieked Yaakov, tearing at his hair. "If he doesn't start pulling this wagon soon, I'm going to lose an entire day's work."
"You don't think I fix that?" shouted Joshua. With that, he took a fistful of hay out of the horse's canvas feed bucket, pushed it under the animal's left flank, took a white phosphorus friction match from his vest pocket, and, scratching it on the pavement, lit the hay. It might have been the acrid smell of the phosphorus smoke, the sight of the flames, or the heat from the fire-or all three-that changed the horse's mind. The horse exploded from the pavement like a skyrocket on the Fourth of July! Nostrils flaring, eyes wide open with fright, and rear hooves kicking the wind (not to mention the front of the wagon!), the horse twisted and bucked in its harness. Then Yaakov and Joshua heard a sharp, dreadful snap as the harness's belly band tore, allowing the horse to break loose from the shafts and almost toppling the wagon. Yaakov, poor fellow, hung on to the bridle for dear life while Joseph attempted to cover the animal's eyes with a schemata. Finally, after what must have seemed an eternity but in truth was only a matter of minutes, they brought the animal under control, leaving the hub on the left front wheel broken and the contents of the wagon spread all over the street. "You know what, Teddy?" laughed Grandpa Joe, "Yaakov told me years later-after he would talk to me again-that his horse never laid down after that until the day it died!"
Teddy smiled as he rode in the back of the limousine, recalling this and other stories Grandpa Joe used to tell him. He thought about how these stories were so typical of what Francine Prose said about Jewish humor: "Jewish humor encompasses an intimate acquaintance with absurdity.... It embraces the jokes that don't quite make sense about a world that makes no sense either." As further proof of this statement, Teddy and Susan can cite more than a few absurd episodes from their own family's life that to this day send them, not to mention their children, into fits of laughter that usually bring tears to their eyes.
After a few years of working as a tailor, Joshua succumbed to the repeated entreaties of his brother and moved to Milwaukee. There, he met and married Dora Braun. Now, with the need for more stability in his life, Joshua took a position with The Prudential Insurance Company of America, a job that served him and Dora well over the years as their family grew rapidly with the birth of five children.
The trip with Grandpa Joe to the Marwood Studios on Monday nights after dinner was quite an adventure, extending some seven slow, grinding miles by public conveyance across the city's midsection. It involved a ride from the Stone's home, first on the No. 22 Center Street trackless trolley from Forty-eighth Street to The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company's Twenty-seventh Street Station at Fond du Lac Avenue. The Center Street route was long known for poor service, dating back as far as the 1920s when streetcars plied the route and when the streets west of Fifty-first Street were not paved. Out there, among the lack of stop signs, an abundance of hot-rodders, or the occasional peddler's horse that might skittishly drag a wagon into the path of a streetcar, it was all the operator could do to keep his car moving, much less adhere to the company's schedule. Because the line intersected all of the north-south crosstown lines, slow or not, it became increasingly popular, and over time, women shoppers made up an increasing part of its ridership. It was not unusual to see someone laden with shopping bags full of bratwurst, knockwurst, and veal cutlets running to catch a departing streetcar, with the poor operator facing the dilemma of either passing her up or risking abuse from the other passengers. More often than not, the car sat waiting-and the delays accumulated downline. Even in 1946, the No. 22 Center Street line still appeared to have some strange genetic predisposition toward late service, which only added to the nervousness felt both by Teddy and Grandpa Joe as they were left wondering every Monday night whether their bus would arrive to pick them up on time.
Once at the Twenty-seventh Street Station, if their bus had been on time, they transferred to a waiting No. 23 Fond du Lac Avenue streetcar that took them to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad depot at the head of East Wisconsin Avenue. The old St. Louis Car Company streetcars used in those days had floors that were almost four feet above the street's surface, and if it had not been for Grandpa Joe's help, it would have been difficult indeed for Teddy to climb the three high steps leading to the motorman's station. Fortunately, Grandpa Joe always was there to give him that last-minute boost, and with good cheer, they presented their transfers and scrambled for any vacant seats they could find. Looking back on it, Teddy realized the trip to Marwood Studios must have taken well over an hour. Fortunately, Grandpa Joe's memories of the colorful characters he knew from his experiences in the Old and New Worlds comprised a veritable kaleidoscope of material from which he spun tale after tale on their journeys to and from Miss Verges's studio, making the time spent on the buses and streetcars pass more quickly.
Excerpted from Full Circle by Theodore Jerome Cohen Copyright © 2009 by Theodore Jerome Cohen. Excerpted by permission.
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