Friday, February 5, 2010

Old Stuff: Bob Newman's 1992 recollections of 46 years of Club membership

Presented to the Club by Robert G. Newman, Monday evening, April 13, 1992

It is a habit of the elder, when they have an opportunity, to summon up remembrance of things past in pretty heavy doses. Over-burdened with ballast after long voyages, an ancient mariner finds it comfortable to transfer some of his excess cargo to such bearers as chance to pass by.  His suffering associates learn there is no effective way, except perhaps by shouting "fire" in a crowded hall, to stay the flow of antique memories. Such a predicament is that in which you find yourselves as I reminisce on 46 years in this unique organization that we call the Monday Evening Club. I recognize that some present are very familiar with events I recall that are also part of their recollections. For this I beg indulgence.  Maybe they can correct my errors.

First, how I got there, by a flexible interpretation of the hallowed Rules of the Monday Evening Club. In disregard of the apparent intent of Rule 10, I was never among the gentlemen invited to attend a session by the member who is host for the evening. (Perhaps I shouldn't even be here.) At any rate, without prior warning or looking over, I was visited one day in 1946 by two dignified citizens functioning as a committee. James Rosenthal, attorney and [Berkshire] Athenaeum trustee, and Elmer Brigham, principal of Pomeroy School, had known me ever since I was a small boy.  They recited the history and procedures of the Club, concluding by inviting me to join. Although not sure I wanted to sign on for what looked like a long course of solemn-sounding evenings, I decided the correct response for a new librarian was "I do." Thus began my Monday Evening Club experiences.

I suppose that some time before the visitation by James and Elmer, who were probably executive committeemen, I had survived the esoteric ceremony of (here I quote) "balls and cubes" as set forth in Rule 2. This matter of the secret ballot as observed in successive forms has always fascinated me. Its phases have been as follows:

Phase 1. The Chairman of the evening announced: "Voting on Mr. So-and-So. Balls elect, cubes reject." Elmer, the perennial secretary, then produced a neatly fashioned mahogany-stained box made by him, about a foot in length, with a small lidded chamber at one end and a longer lidded chamber at the opposite end. This receptacle he gravely bore around the circle of attentive members, pausing box in hand before each man. The voters extracted a die (singular of dice) or a marble from a supply in the large chamber and slipped it into a hole in the small chamber. When all had exercised their franchise, the first man to vote opened the tally end and proclaimed either "all clear" of, in the case of one or more negatives, the number thereof. If all was clear or there was only a single cube, the candidate was in. If there were two or more cubes, he wasn't. After six months, another try could be made by his sponsor.

Phase 2. The marbles/cubes having disappeared, white and black poker chips replaced them.

Phase 3.  Having mislaid the poker  chips, we began using slips of paper for ballots, awarding membership, in the case of multiple candidates, to those amassing the higher or lowest number of points, depending on the scoring method.

Phase 4.  What next?  Our resourcefulness over the years gives confidence that we shall contend successfully with any new electoral problems that may arise.

One of the most intriguing provisions in the regulations is set forth by Rule 10, reading as follows:  "Five gentlemen, not members, may be invited to attend any session, by the member who is host for the evening." While a guest appears at our revels from time to time, never I think have a I seen five at once, nor do I expect ever to see them. The more one ponders about it, the more bizarre does this appear.  In olden days, when houses were larger and servants plentiful, even with a membership up to thirty, it was probably possible to squeeze in another five. But the chairs, the table settings, the food preparation! All must have presented complications that hosts and spouses would prefer not to encounter. And I doubt that many meetings were held in place of public accommodations, which might have offered the requisite facilities.

Musing on the implications of Rule 10, a ghostly vision, as in a recurrent dream, sometimes haunts my mind. It is a snowy, blowing, freezing Pittsfield twilight.  Shadowy figures converge on a stately home not far from Park Square. A couple of fellows, well-bundled again the cold, have walked up together from South Street and East Housatonic. Driving a spanking new pung (a sleigh with a boxlike body on runners) over snow-packed roads, a youngish chap arrives from the new lots around Jubilee Hill. Soon comes a stout man in a buggy, and finally another from his Pomeroy Avenue residence. Stomping their feet and blowing on near-frozen fingers, they approach a door. One nervously raises the brass knocker which falls with a startling report in the chill air. A starchy maid answers. A voice calls from the huddled group: "We are five gentlemen, not members." "Please wait here," stammers the flustered door-woman, evidently not briefed on how many to expect. Then in a moment appears the genial host, with a hearty "Come in, gentlemen. You're very welcome. The boy will take the horses. Come in, come in. We're waiting supper."

Here my dream fades. I'll never know whether a good time was had, whether the five were eventually elected and lived happily ever after or (horrors!) only a few of the called were chosen, a dangerous consequence of inviting five gentlemen at the same time.

Oh well. Best not to dwell on it. Better to remember them as figments of my imagination, insubstantial as the Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Three Musketeers, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or Ten Lords a-Leaping. Such stuff as dreams are made on.

Forty-six years. That's a long time being a member. Having attended 460 meetings (at an average of ten a year), I must have consumed 460 good dinners, polished off a few cases of spirits, and heard some 460 papers, an estimated total of 230 hours, or over nine days of listening. The papers (I wrote 23 of them), by and large, covered much the same variety of subjects, but in the matter of titles there is definitely a change.

At first, if a man authored a paper on the geology of Berkshire County, he would probably entitle it "The Geology of Berkshire County" and let it go at that. Such a forthright practice must have sent the members scurrying to whatever works of reference they could find containing information on the subject, in order to prepare themselves for discussion. So gradually the expedient developed of using opaque instead of transparent titles, today's normal method. Thus "The Geology of Berkshire County" transmuted into "Rocks in My Head" or some such cryptic label to discourage last-minute cramming.

But like so many best-laid plans, it led to a new difficulty. This was the technique of ramblification or shooting beside the mark, whereby a member innocent of knowledge on the topic grasps at some straw suggested by the paper and speaks at length on a subject extraneous to the business at hand. Some there have been who became so adept that they could be nudged awake, when their names were called, to deliver a neatly expressed commentary based only on a covert glance at the meeting notices announcing the reader's title. One long-time colleague, by all odds the most expert at this stratagem, would even discourse at length on the literary style of the reader, with no intention of the topic or title whatsoever. This practice was not attempted by any but (the most) gifted orators.

Footnote: Let's not be too hard on ramblification. There's at least a little of the rambler in all of us, and tangential commentary can be live-saving in emergency.

As we all know, conceiving, composing and reading papers is only part of our obligation. Like the hounds of spring on winter's traces comes the following year and the ritual of hosting one's fellows. Here conferences with spouses or restaurateurs on the myriad details of accommodation, food and drink engage energies for days in advance. There is one decision, however, formerly not to be omitted, that is required no longer. The selection of a suitable brand of cigars needed careful consideration in the era of the smoke-filled room. At least we had a wise counselor in the person of Harry Rich, the ever-obliging proprietor of the Berkshire News at 15 North Street. In addition to suggesting the right label, Harry lightened the investment by allowing a host to carry an entire cigar box to the meeting, in the capacity of custodian, being charged only for cheroots actually burned and returning those unconsumed. In addition, several packs of cigarettes were purchased to be strewn about the dinner table. Also a few of the brethren were pipe smokers. The haze through which we glimpsed each other grew blue indeed toward the close of the evening.

Although the weed is absent in our current health-conscious gatherings, the beneficent stimulation of alcohol flourishes. Probably this was a welcome part of Monday sessions from early times, though perhaps represented by wines at dinner more generally than stronger waters at a happy hour. Be that as it may, there was a long dry spell, at least during the first days of my membership.  The presence of several estimable persons, who happened to be teetotalers, put a crimp in what is normally an accompaniment of gentlemanly social assembly.

Perhaps there is a connection between this drought and the solemn rite of glasses which came into vogue during the time of austerity I witnessed from 1946 to the mid-50s, when it vanished without formal notice. The ceremony to which I refer happened thus between the reading of the paper and discussion thereof, the host or waitress would appear from the pantry bearing either a very large tray, or two of average size, on which were arranged a number of glasses corresponding to the number of diners, and one or more pitchers. The pitchers, it hurts me to say, contained tap water, sometimes iced. Gravely, without pipes and timbrels and surely with no wide ecstasy, the bearers of Pittsfield aqua pura set their burden down.  Those members who desired to partake, wet their whistles, I suppose, to lubricate vocal cords for the ensuing discussion. The water was generally drunk in reflective silence. The scene would have delighted Carrie Nation.

But things are not always what they seem. One evening at the venerable Crane Inn in Dalton, I arrived a bit early and decided to make a quick visit to the bar, located in the basement. What was my consternation to find snugly ensconced at the place of refreshment a half dozen Monday Evening Club cronies enjoying a preprandial snifter. "Sit down and have a drink," said they. "I will," said I. Thus, one by one, a young man's illusions perish as he descends the primrose path.

Nostalgia Department:  The Crane Inn, built in 1889 and known originally as the Irving House, occupied the present Main Street location of the Aggie Bank's Dalton Branch. [The First Agricultural National Bank was based in Pittsfield.] It was a convenient spot for meetings not held at home, with a comfortable lounge suitable for reading and dissecting papers following dinner. Dubbed the Eagle Room, when opened in 1953, this salon was named to match its decor. Eagles to the right of you, eagles to the left of you, the birds of prey were everywhere, welded to andirons, woven into carpets, printed on draperies, portrayed in pictures, carved on chair backs — a veritable ............. [sic] of the magnificent wild fowl that are now an endangered species. Habitues of the Eagle Room mourned its loss when the old hostelry was razed in 1966, following a major fire.

When not entertained in the family warmth of members' homes, I recall that we dined, imbibed, read papers and talked in at least a dozen other establishments. Those, in addition to the Crane Inn, have been the former Wendell Hotel and its successors, the Berkshire Restaurant, the Stanley Club, the White Tree Inn, the Yellow Aster, the Red Lion Inn across from Norman Rockwell's studio, the Lenox House, the Lenox Club, the Springs, Blantyre, the Federal House and The Berkshire Hilton. I've probably forgotten others. Had there been one named The World Turned Upside Down, I'm sure we would have tried it.

Meeting and dining together tends to develop a nearly family intimacy that is diminished when a member dies. It used to be that as many of the Club as possible attended the funeral in a group rather than as individuals. This good old custom, no longer always observed, spontaneously reappeared at the service for Norman Rockwell on November 11, 1978. Through the kind offices of Harold Salzmann, himself unable to be present because of an accident, Molly Rockwell's desire for old friends as pall-bearers was fulfilled by the Club. The Berkshire Eagle reported that the "active bearers, besides Jarvis Rockwell (one of Norman's sons) were all member so the old and enduring Monday Evening Club of Berkshire County, of which Rockwell had been a member." For the record, Harold rounded up [Robert D.] Bardwell, [George W.] Low, [Thomas F.] Plunkett [Jr.], [Robert M.] Henderson and [Robert G.] Newman for active duty.  Honorary bearers were [William A.] Selke (who, as I recall, gave up his post so that Jarvis might serve), [Rev. Arthur L.] Teikmanis and [Stuart C.] Henry. That evening we could see ourselves on nationwide television, all but Norman.

The tribute was appropriate because he (Norman R.) had truly delighted in the Club's fellowship.  From his induction in 1957 he rarely missed a session. With advancing years, his friends and fellow members, Doug MacGregor and Bill Selke of Stockbridge, made it possible for Norman to continue by driving him to meetings, maintaining his admirable attendance record.

The funeral, beginning at St. Paul's Church in Stockbridge, was vintage Rockwell Americana, complete with an honor guard of Cub and Boy Scouts (uneasily quiet), Berkshire County Deputy Sheriffs, State Troopers and Stockbridge Police. At the cemetery there were ticklish moments while hoisting the casket above a hedge planted years earlier and grown to an unexpected height. And for the perfect final touch, a well-mannered horse from a neighboring pasture ambled up and respectfully gazed over the fence to watch.

The funeral was memorable, but I think all of us who knew Norman remember best our gatherings at his home. He was a fine host. None who enjoyed his hospitality will forget him, genially presiding at a dinner table laden with hearty fare transported in steamers from the Red Lion across the road, then welcoming us to his memento-packed studio to hear the paper of the evening.

When one looks back on a segment of the history of an organization, questions usually asked are how did it differ from today? And what do you imagine will be its future?

My feeling about the Club in its 122nd year is that it has basically changed little since its creation in 1869. Certainly it remains essentially the same as in 1946, the starting point of the 46 year span about which this paper speaks. Officially established as "a club for the discussion of literary, scientific and other subjects of general interest," humanized as we know by good fellowship, the description is still broadly accurate. There have been minor changes of emphasis as the world turns, but as Dick Nunley comments in a column for November 29, 1989 " the tradition of Franklin's Junto and 19th Century Boston's Saturday Club, they still find something worthwhile in hearing together considered thought on well-informed topics, in good cheer of lively conversation and, of course, dining well."

It is rather remarkable that for all these years successive groups of a dozen to thirty men could be found able and willing to entertain each other by writing papers that in most cases would be heard only once (of course an exception is legitimate recycling by people who are professionally obliged to give a talk, lecture or sermon or write an article or thesis that could sprout from a carefully preserved Monday Evening paper). But for most of us, our discourse is "a flower (with apologies to Thomas Gray wandering in his country churchyard) "born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air." Our occasional pieces are no royal fireworks to sparkle long after the occasion is over. Yet that detracts not at all from the enjoyment. I believe we have remained true to our origin and have a solid understanding on which to continue. That patron of clubs in our tradition, the one and only Dr. Samuel Johnson, gave the definition that fits us well:  "Club — An assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions." We cherish the conditions. So may it be.

Photo of Norman Rockwell's studio by yourFAVORITEmartian, used under Creative Commons License

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