Further interrogating memories of childhood fires

I plan to complete a first draft of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own later this summer. No, I have not yet identified a publisher or a literary agent, though that is the goal. But as with my Noir of Who essay, I always planned to finish this labor of love before contemplating next steps.

Meanwhile, as much as I have learned about my genetic family, my legal family and my own past, key questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered. For example, while I have definitively identified my genetic mother, she steadfastly refuses to communicate with me beyond one terse text to her younger sister, whom I met in person in August 2019. Furthermore, while I am nearly certain I have identified my genetic father—a man who, unfortunately, died in 2006—I cannot discuss him with my genetic mother.

Similarly, I remain unable to pinpoint the precise date and circumstances of two fires from my early childhood. In fact, I may never obtain this information for the early 1970s fire at the John Rhoads Company. Founded in West Philadelphia in 1886 as a carpet cleaning company, my paternal grandfather and his younger brother first assumed control of it in 1926, with my father assuming control in 1960. Folks who live adjacent to the site—now an empty lot—recall the fire, but not precisely when it happened. My maternal aunt is certain my father hired a convicted arsonist named Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set the fire, presumably to collect insurance money; it is likely my father was already accumulating gambling debts. Advertisements for John Rhoads stopped appearing in the Philadelphia newspapers at the end of March 1972, only to resume for its second, and final, location in September 1974. But within that time frame, there is no public record of a fire at that location.

On a more positive note, though, I may be zeroing in on exact date of the fire at my childhood home, on Sue Ellen Drive in Havertown, Pennsylvania. One breakthrough occurred during the same trip I met my genetic maternal aunt: Assistant Chief Mike Norman of the Manoa Fire Department showed me this photograph. “Sue Ellen Drive” is written on its back, and Chief Norman stated the uniforms were those worn in 1973, meaning it depicts the aftermath of the fire in question—if what I have deduced through an analysis of the events of that night is correct.

IMG_4252 (2)

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As for the fire, let me once again walk through what I know—or think I know—about that night, with the caveats these events occurred nearly 50 years ago, my mother died in 2004, and my older sister is unable to articulate any memory of that night.

At the time of the fire, I was in first grade.

If this is correct, that limits the fire to sometime between September 1972 and June 1973.

We did not have school the next day, and my father was out particularly late, suggesting it was a Friday or Saturday night; I am almost certain it was a Saturday night.

It being a Saturday night is purely impressionistic—it is what comes to mind when I probe the memory. Either way, though, this further reduces the number of days on which the fire could have occurred.

The first I knew something was wrong was when I awoke in my bedroom—all three bedrooms were on the top floor of the split-level three-story house—to find Mindy standing quietly in my doorway.

Mindy is severely mentally impaired. According to her annual Life Enrichment Plan, which summarizes every aspect of her treatment and history, she lived with on Sue Ellen Drive through June 1973—when I finished first grade—then was in and out of residential facilities until entering her current residence in December 1974.

I then could smell—or feel or sense—the smoke and/or heat rising from the ground floor playroom, situated beneath Mindy’s bedroom. I must have roused our mother from our parents’ bedroom—our father was not home—because the next thing I remember is the three of us standing on our neighbor’s lawn with our Keeshond Luvey, still wearing whatever we had worn to sleep, watching the firefighters.

There are a number of things to unpack here.

First, Luvey—so named by our mother because “he loves everybody!”—was born on December 17, 1972. We acquired him—one night at a pet store in Wilmington, Delaware for…reasons—when he was only a few weeks old, likely in early January 1973. If Luvey was with us, that limits the day of the fire to a Friday or Saturday night between January and June 1973.

Second, I do not recall any of us needing heavy jackets, nor do I think it was raining or especially windy; the photograph, at the very least, does not contradict this. This would eliminate January and February, when average minimum temperatures in Philadelphiawere 15.6 and 13.4 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively, narrowing the time frame to between March and May 1973.

Thankfully, the firefighters had responded to the alarm—sent by a neighbor perhaps—quickly enough to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the playroom, though that was destroyed. As Chief Norman remembered it, he and his unit received the call while they were returning to the fire station from another local fire.

If Chief Norman’s memory is correct, there was at least one other fire that night, not just in Havertown, but in the smaller area served by Manoa Fire Company—one of five volunteer fire stations in the town. Hold that thought.

Deeming our house uninhabitable, my mother drove Mindy, Luvey and I to a nearby motel to spend the night. For some reason—my memory says Mindy unnerved the front desk clerks, though they may simply not have allowed dogs and/or had no vacancies—we were unable to rent a room there. We returned to our house—our father had not yet returned—to sleep, despite the lingering smell of the fire. Our mother would later say the fire started because she had not turned off the hair drying unit—one with an apparatus you tilted over your head while sitting—she had been using in the playroom. I do not know if she had simply forgotten to do so, or if it needed to “cool down.” Either way, she thought her husband would turn if off when he came home. He never did, and the unit either overheated or short-circuited, starting the fire.

To be honest, this story has never made a great deal of sense; my wife Nell openly scoffs at it. Moreover, our mother’s older sister more than hints it was set by Klayman because my father had not yet paid him for setting the John Rhoads fire.[1] However, Chief Norman did not find the story unreasonable at all, analogizing it to teenagers leaving hair curlers on in the bathroom.

That there was such a hair drying apparatus can be seen on the right side of this photograph. While I cannot be certain when this photograph was taken, Luvey could easily be a few months old, and I could easily be six years old, putting it in the spring of 1973.

Luvey on Sue Ellen Drive 1974

A few years later, the “fire marshal” came to Lynnewood Elementary School to speak to us about fire safety; Sitting to my right in the auditorium during the assembly was one of my best friends, a girl who lived just a few houses from me. When one particular house appeared on the screen, she prodded my arm. Pointing to the screen, she excitedly whispered, “Matt…That’s your house!”

It was, in fact, my house. Not only had a photographer been at the fire, but someone had filmed it as well. Theoretically, either could have been the work of a neighbor, though Chief Norman suggested the photograph, at least, was taken by a professional.[2] This would also explain how the film shot that night made its way into the fire safety film watched that day in Lynnewood. Incidentally, Haverford Township did not have a designated fire marshal until the 1980s, so I suspect the speaker was the fire chief of one of Havertown’s five volunteer fire companies.

But that begs this question: if the fire in our house merited photographing and filming, why can I not find a single mention of it in the Delaware County Daily Times (DCDT), which regularly featured stories about local fires? Using the invaluable Newspapers.com, I carefully went through every edition from March 1 through May 31, 1973—page by tedious page—on the off chance either the street name or the town name had been written incorrectly, but there was not a single reference to a house fire anywhere in Havertown. I did find an April 26 story describing three different fires throughout all of Delaware County in the previous 24 hours.[3] Presumably, two fires in the same night in a much smaller geographic area would have been irresistible—assuming, of course, they had been aware of it in time; reader tips apparently drove much of the DCDT’s reporting on events such as fires.

However, in the spring of 1973, the DCDT did not publish a Sunday edition—meaning events which occurred on a Saturday night could easily have been missed; there was more than enough other news to fill Monday editions. If the fire in our house occurred on Saturday night/Sunday morning, this could be the reason—other than simply being deemed insufficiently newsworthy—the fire in our house did not appear in the DCDT.

Meanwhile, what can we learn using the weather conditions I remember from the night of the fire?

Table 1 displays the temperature, precipitation level and wind speed at 12 midnight on every Friday and Saturday night between March 1 and June 2, 1973. Midnight is a reasonable approximation to the time the fire occurred, and weather conditions rarely appreciably varied between 10 pm and 2 am.

Table 1: Midnight Weather Conditions of Friday and Saturday nights, March 1 to June 2, 1973

Date Weekday Temperature in degrees Fahrenheit Precipitation level in inches Wind speed in miles per hour
March 2 Friday 47 0 5, NNE
March 3 Saturday 42 0.08 13, NNE
March 9 Friday 44 0 12, ENE
March 10 Saturday 42 0 9, E
March 16 Friday 57 0.06 10, E
March 17 Saturday 41 0 29, WSW
March 23 Friday 42 0 12, NNW
March 24 Saturday 43 0 6, W
March 30 Friday 47 0 5, WNW
March 31 Saturday 50 0.06 10, E
April 6 Friday 51 0 8, W
April 7 Saturday 50 0.02 2, SSE
April 13 Friday 40 0 8, N
April 14 Saturday 40 0 7, S
April 20 Friday 49 0 12, E
April 21 Saturday 56 0 7, SW
April 26 Friday 52 0 17, ENE
April 27 Saturday 55 0 15, SW
May 4 Friday 47 0 14, W
May 5 Saturday 54 0 9, N
May 11 Friday 56 0 8, WNW
May 12 Saturday 55 0 7, SW
May 18 Friday 46 0 6, W
May 19 Saturday 57 0 7, SSE
May 25 Friday 54 0 12, ENE
May 26 Saturday 51 0.04 7, ESE
June 1 Friday 67 0 6, WSW
June 2 Saturday 64 0.09 11 pm, 0.10 1 am 8, SE

Beginning with the assumption there was zero precipitation at the time of the fire, we can eliminate March 3, March 16, March 31, April 7, May 26 and June 2. Next, using the assumption it was not especially windy, let us additionally eliminate any night wind speed was at least 10 miles per hour (MPH): March 9, March 17, March 23, April 20, April 26, April 27, May 4, May 25. It is not at all clear how to define “not cold enough for anything other than pajamas/nightgown and bathrobes,” but let us use 45 degrees Fahrenheit as a minimum temperature. That further eliminates March 10, March 24, April 13 and April 14.

At this point, the only Saturday nights remaining are April 21, May 5 and May 12, forcing me to rethink my memory the fire took place earlier in the year; the conditions were unseasonably mild .

And here things get interesting.

At just after 10 am on the morning of April 21, 1973, 21-year-old Barry Foster was turning the Sun Oil truck he was driving—loaded with 8,000 gallons of gasoline—from I-95 onto Chester Pike in Eddystone, when “it just toppled over.”[4] Foster managed to escape the truck, which began to leak its contents; he and the owner of a nearby auto repair shop—who happened to be Vauclain Fire Company Chief Donald “Duck” Daliessi—began to warn occupants of nearly buildings. Their quick actions, along with those of another local police lieutenant and fire chief, saved lives: no sooner had 1301-03 Chester Pike been evacuated when gasoline leaking into its basemen was ignited by a heating apparatus. The resulting fire—at one point rising 100 feet into the sky—burned until around noon, destroying five buildings. Other than some cuts from flying debris, though, nobody was seriously injured. Traffic was snarled for five hours, however, and firefighters remained on the scene for nearly 24 hours—or until roughly 10 am on Sunday, April 22, 1973–which was Easter Sunday that year. IF the fire occurred the previous night, this could explain why we could not rent a room at the motel–they were booked for the holiday weekend.

No other fire—not even multiple fires the same night in the same town—could have compete for limited space in a local paper that typically was limited to 22 pages on Monday. And this it is at least consistent with the idea our house fire did not make the DCDT because it occurred on a Saturday night and was deemed insufficiently newsworthy for the following Monday edition.

The same applies to the night of Saturday, May 5. Early the following morning, a fire left five residents of apartments at 17 and 19 Main Street in Darby; just after the alarm was sounded at 3:39 am, a Yeadon police car collided with a Darby Fire Company No. 1 fire truck two block east, with no serious injuries.[5] One week later, the DCDT splashed this headline across the top of the front page of its Monday, May 14 edition: “2 hurt, 13 die in weekend crashes.”

Of course, none of this really proves anything—I cannot be absolutely certain the fire was not on a school night; or on a colder, wetter night; or that Luvey was with us. Indeed, the essence of interrogating memory is not to take any remembered fact or story detail at face value. Moreover, I was no more than six years old when this fire occurred, and that was 47 years ago; memories morph and fade in far shorter time frames.

Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of rigorous and meticulous validation—using a range of independent, verifiable data—interrogating memory demands. Thus, I tentatively, in the lightest pencil, list April 21, May 5 and May 12, 1973 as the likeliest dates the playroom in my childhood house was destroyed by a fire of questionable origin.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] I should point out that IF this is true—and it is a huge IF—this would confirm what I strongly suspect: the John Rhoads fire occurred no more than a few months after April 1, 1972.

[2] He gave me the name Brian Feeney, of Feeney Fire Films, but his Twitter profile states he did not start taking photographs of fires until around 1996, after serving 23 years as a firefighter.

[3] “Fires hit Yeadon, Radnor, Brookhaven; no one injured,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 26, 1973, pg. 12

[4] “Police, firemen are credited with saving lives in fire, blast,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 23, 1973, pg.1

[5] “5 left homeless in blaze,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), May 7, 1973, pg.1

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XI

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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I have no further news about my older, severely mentally-impaired sister Mindy, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week. Meanwhile, Nell’s mother Sarah has not yet tested positive, despite an outbreak in the critical care unit of her senior living facility, where she has been living since a bad fall last November.

In January, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, requiring Nell and me to clear out the bungalow in which she has lived since July 2013 by February 29. We managed that feat with hours to spare, in no small part due to the prior efforts of one of Nell’s first cousins. We relied heavily upon a storage unit we have rented as long as Sarah has been living in that bungalow. Nonetheless, a load of my mother-in-law’s furniture and belongings now resides in our half of a fairly spacious basement.

And it was into this teetering maze of tables, bookcases, boxes and storage bins I found myself venturing late on the afternoon of Saturday, April 11, 2020. Just two nights earlier, I had written a long e-mail to my maternal aunt and her two children in which I had neglected to wish them Chag Sameach for the second night of Pesach.

It was thus no small irony that what I—a Jewish-raised atheist—sought in the basement was the second of a pair of decorative Easter baskets Nell—an Episcopalian-raised agnostic—needed for the following morning. I was also in search of empty plastic eggs, which I saw almost immediately after insinuating myself into a narrow opening between a dining room table and a bookcase. And while an exhaustive search did not turn up the specific basket I sought—I did find an acceptable substitute—I happened upon two bags of paper grass, one purple and one green.

This was all very satisfying, even if I normally pay little attention to how Nell and the girls celebrate Easter. However, a short time later, as I was headed upstairs for some reason, our younger daughter came bounding into the living room excitedly proclaiming her anticipation of the following morning.

Perhaps it was because I was still irritated by President Donald Trump’s callous “HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY!” the previous day, even if I have no dog in this fight. At any rate, I demanded to know if our younger daughter, who is on the cusp between accepting and rejecting such entities as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, even knew what was commemorated on Easter Sunday. She actually did, it would turn later, but in the moment was unable to retrieve that information.

And when Nell also hesitated, it fell upon me—or so I thought in that inexplicable moment of prickly self-righteousness—to tell my version of the Biblical story of what happened to the body of Jesus two days after his crucifixion. To her credit, Nell then admirably filled in the gaps of my story, though she insisted on referring to Tetrarch Herod as a pharaoh. And that led us down a further rabbit hole of discord, which Nell and I then carried upstairs then back down into the kitchen. She berated me for saying our younger was not allowed to celebrate Easter unless she knew its backstory, to which I indignantly retorted I only said she should know it, not that she was disallowed.

The background music for this ridiculous contretemps was the movie Nell had turned to on Turner Classic Movies. There are a handful of movies I have essentially memorized–The Maltese Falcon, L.A. Confidential, a few Marx Brothers films–but it is likely the first one I learned this way was Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 masterpiece What’s Up Doc?. I could not help but recited the dialogue even as we were having our heated discussion. Such is the nature of good art.

But as is usually the case with the regular dust-ups between me and our younger daughter, it was over almost as soon as it had begun—with some tears and an apologetic father.

Well, except for one karmic postscript.

After Nell and I resolved our own quarrel, I took our golden retriever Ruby out for a needed visit to the backyard. We walked out our front door, down a few wooden steps to the sidewalk, then right to the edge of the driveway. Here, Ruby took off like a shot towards the backyard which slopes down from the driveway; I scampered after her. As I did, something small and furry raced by me in the other direction.

It was a small brown bunny.

Which I promptly relayed to Nell and our daughters with the winking addendum, “Make of this what you will,” which especially amused our younger daughter.

Soon after that, Nell and I settled down to watch a movie; I brought with me some of the same brownies as the night before. We had watched One Crazy Summer as a family the previous Saturday night, which got Nell and me talking about the relationship between Demi Moore and her ex-husband Bruce Willis. Which is why I recommended—it was my turn following Nell’s suggestion of Broadchurch—the 1991 crime thriller Mortal Thoughts.

However, once I told Nell how horrible Willis’ character is in the film, she hesitated a moment; he will always be David Addison to her. And the violent early scenes almost put her off as well. Still, she persisted, and I was rewarded with a “that was better than I expected” when it was over. I observed we had just watched one of two movies released in the first half of the 1990s, the other being Pulp Fiction, to feature both Willis and Harvey Keitel—but never in the same scene.

Once Nell and the girls had gone to sleep, and I had put in a few hours preparing many of the PowerPoint slides for Monday’s “history of rock and roll” class, I was inspired to watch a film which has likely ascended into my top 10 favorites, and which shares a key feature (which I will not spoil) with Mortal Thoughts: The Usual Suspects. Bryan Singer’s 1995 masterpiece gets better every time I see it.

By the time I awoke on Sunday, the Easter celebration had already ended, though our younger daughter has yet to find two of her stuffed plastic eggs. The classroom table was laden with numerous sizes and colors of chocolate eggs and one or two unwrapped chocolate bunnies when I finally went downstairs.

Nell was preparing to cook a large, delectable ham and a bundle of asparagus, much to my delight. First, however, I had committed myself to walking down the hill to a small local grocery store for a handful of dairy items I deemed necessary.

Thus, once I had completed the meal I call “breakfast,” I put on socks, a navy-blue windbreaker and my docksiders—along with one of the yellow and white cloth masks, complete with elastic bands, one of our downstairs neighbor shad sewn for us. In my shirt pocket were two thin white rubber gloves. I was carrying two of the white plastic shopping bags I had been given at a nearby Star Market a few weeks earlier.

I was about halfway down the hill, my sinuses already rebelling against the damp weather and the spring pollen floating in the air, when I realized I had neglected to take my wallet—or any of the other items I routinely put in my pockets before going anywhere; my Swiss army knife, Burt’s Bees lip balm, a pen and pocket-sized pack of tissues. At least I had my keys.

This is how out of practice at going to stores we have become.

I trudged back up the hill, retrieved the forgotten items then walked back down to the store. All but one of the few other customers wore masks as well. Somewhere in my journey, I had lost one of the rubber gloves, so I only used one gloved hand to pick up the few items I needed. Walking to the one open register, I saw blue strips of tape marking six feet gaps on the floor; a large clear thick plastic sheet was suspended in front of both registers.

When it was my turn to pay, I began to put my blue shopping basket onto the counter. “No, you can’t do that,” said the young woman in the gray Mount Washington sweatshirt standing behind the register. “Sorry,” I said, taking each item out of the basket with my gloved right hand, after which I put the basket on the floor a bit further away. I also bagged my groceries.

Once I had lugged those groceries up the hill and into the kitchen, I used a Clorox wipe to “disinfect” each item.  I then put my windbreaker through the neck of a deck chair on the porch off of my office to air out, while I stripped and took my second hot shower of the day. But not before I had distractedly scratched the stubble on my jaw my gloved hand, because, you know.

The four of us gathered for dinner in the living room not long afterward. As we ate, we watched the latest Buzzfeed Unsolved true crime video from “the boys”: the 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard. Given the relative youth of the episode’s hosts, I was not that surprised they nelglected to mention the enormously popular television series loosely based upon the case, The Fugitive. And that led me to explain why Philadelphia-born noir writer David Goodis had sued the producers of the series.

A short time later, after I had made significant headway in my nightly kitchen cleaning, Nell and I settled back in the living room to watch the first two episodes of the third and final season of Broadchurch. The epilogue to this was my finally finishing my PowerPoint slides just after 3:30 am.

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When I awoke—slowly, sluggishly, somnambulantly—on Monday, April 13, 2020, a violent rainstorm was blowing outside our bedroom porch doors. In fact, the wind blowing through the glass doors rattling the black, pull-down shade so that the wooden grip at its bottom knocked against the door had been waking me on and off for some time.

I finally roused myself, though, showered, dressed and made my way downstairs.

This is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 13

And on the always-popular white board, Nell had drawn this:

Its Monday Gerald and Piggy

I was running late, so I wanted to gather our two daughters quickly enough to begin class at 3:00 pm. Wandering into my office to collect my desktop computer, I noticed the remains of our younger daughter’s breakfast and her Harry Potter plastic wand on my desk. She now uses my office—to participate in online meetings with her fourth-grade teacher—because it is quiet once the door is closed.

This is fine with me, so long as she cleans up after herself, which she usually does; on this day, she was even more scattered than usual. Mildly miffed, I yelled out for her. When she did not respond, I marched over to her closed bedroom door and knocked rather vigorously on it. Opening the door, I pointedly told her what was on my desk. Apologetic, she scurried into my office to retrieve her dishes—though she still forgot her wand.

I was not actually that upset, but a short time later, as we were about to begin class, she burst into tears. Nell and I were standing in the kitchen with her, and we tried to puzzle out why she was suddenly so upset. She usually does not know in those moments, though I suspect I startled her with my loud door rapping; she reacts poorly to such things—and the loud weather did not help.

But these once again subsided quickly, and she and her older sister settled into the classroom to see this:

British Invasion

British Invasion

We worked through the slides, covering Beatlemania, the early days of The Rolling Stones and The Who, and a few other key British Invasion bands in good time, finishing around 4:45 pm. I did my best to “explain” the first of these, to which our older daughter sniffed, “They’re not that cute.” Our younger daughter was amused by the change from the “mod” Who of 1964 to the more outlandish Who of 1969–even if she is now convinced Animal was actually the Who’s drummer. And the only song our older daughter especially liked was The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Well, there had been one unexpected—and joyful—break in my presentation. The only YouTube video I had not been able to link to a slide was for Devo’s surrealist cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” When I came to that point in the presentation, I went to the URL I had saved. As I was fussed with my mouse to make the video full screen, the video for A-ha’s “Take On Me” somehow began to play.

This is our older daughter’s often-proclaimed favorite song, so I promised we could play it once the Devo video—which I played, along with Patti Smith’s seminal cover of Them’s “Gloria,” to demonstrate the durability of certain iconic rock songs—had ended. At which point our older daughter bounced out of her chair, crying, “I need some room to floss!”

Following both versions of “Gloria—our daughters were not quite sure what to make of Smith, with our younger daughter remarking, “It seems obvious to me stuff happened to her in her childhood”—class was dismissed.

This was my chance to, at long last, remove the slowly-discoloring wedge of lime from the green SodaStream I have commandeered as my own. It took a series of knives of various sizes, a long metal skewer and some very strong fingers to complete the task. I did not replace the soggy mess I removed with a fresh lime wedge, or even a lemon wedge.

The highlight of the rest of the evening was the mouthwatering faux croque monsieur, sans fried egg, Nell cooked for each of us from some leftover ham, despite earlier protestations she was too lazy to make a bechamel and our dangerously-low quantity of cheese. I washed mine down—albeit a few hours later—with a can of Wolfgang Puck’s delicious basil tomato bisque.

Sheltering in place with my beloved wife and daughters has its perks.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IX

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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Over the past four days, our mostly-tranquil coexistence has shown signs of fraying around the edges. Call it “stir-craziness,” call it “cabin fever,” call it whatever you like—as we entered our fourth week of sheltering in place, our younger daughter was especially sensitive, and I was particularly moody. There is a reason that for two consecutive years of high school Halloween parties I dressed as Hermes—or Mercury, if you prefer the Roman version—the impish, speedy messenger of the gods. Not satisfied merely with portraying an ancient deity, I made wings for my “sandals” out of aluminum foil (I also made a caduceus, but I not recall how). The goal was to imitate silver—as in quicksilver, another word for the element mercury. I was thus a “walking pun,” literally “quick silver;” adding to the word play was my mercurial nature.

Yes, I was that much of a geek in high school. What do you expect from a boy who dressed as Nicolaus Copernicusfor Halloween when he was 10 years old? The portrait from which my mother attempted to fashion a costume showed him wearing what looked a short fur coat, so most of the people handing out candy thought I was a king of some sort. When I explained I was actually a 16th-century Polish astronomer, few, if any, shared my excitement this was the man who revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos by determining the sun was the fixed point (relatively) around which the planets—including, brace yourself medieval minds, the Earth—revolved.

Meanwhile, back in 21st-century Brookline, I must take the bulk of the responsibility for the tension between Nell and me, which did not fully resolve itself until Monday evening. Something Nell told me as I was saying good night to her Friday—which I do before I commence my night routine, along with taking one of my blood pressure medications—threw me for a loop. I reacted poorly, and I can only attribute some of that to barely leaving the apartment for three weeks. It was less what she told me, which did not especially disturb me, than the way she dropped it into the conversation out of the blue as she was preparing to go to sleep. We eventually resolved that issue…for the moment.

Nonetheless, the following afternoon and evening were perfectly innocuous. Earlier that day, Nell had finally successfully colored our younger daughter’s hair—in this case, one side a vibrant red and one side a vivid blue. I once joked our younger daughter was punk, while her older sister was new wave; I may have had the two reversed.

Blue and red all over

When I finally wandered downstairs, I was mildly disappointed Nell had not made pancakes and bacon as she had suggested she would when we were having our back-and-forth the previous night.

Correction—at first, I thought she had made them, but had not saved any for me. I soon realized I was wrong, however, when the small flat pan awaiting my washing skills in the kitchen sink told me she had made crepes instead.

My bad.

A short time later, Nell suggested we order take out for dinner. When I told our younger daughter (hamburger, lettuce, mayonnaise) we were getting food delivered from our favorite local joint, she responded with “Yes!” and a right fist pump. Our older daughter (small super veggie pizza) was more blasé, unlike her sister, father (Greek salad, chicken parmigiana sub) and mother (steak and American cheese with mayonnaise and caramelized onions). Given how many “chips” I have watched characters eat recently on Broadchurch, I added one side order each of French fries and onion rings. Once the food arrived—left on our doorstep by an already-tipped delivery person—Nell promptly put my salad into a bowl, the side orders onto a large white dish, and the hamburger onto a smaller dish out of a not-unreasonable excess of caution.

Deciding it was time for a family movie night—and with Nell rejecting my tentative suggestion of American Graffiti, which I had been thinking about since the girls and I had learned about the early history of rock and roll the day before—we opted instead for a 1980s John Cusack movie, settling quickly on a mutual favorite, One Crazy Summer; the cast alone was worth the free Amazon Prime rental.

Speaking of American Graffiti, I had done some memory interrogating earlier that day. As we watched this 1984 documentary, I paused it to tell the girls Bill Haley and the Comets would get renewed attention in the mid-1970s when an enormously popular sitcom called Happy Days used “Rock Around the Clock” as its opening theme. But when I awoke on Saturday, I suddenly remembered a different theme song. Fearing I had misled our daughters, I did a quick Google search. Apparently, the first season—which I never really watched—did open with the Haley song. And it did increase its popularity, sending it back into the Billboard Top 40.

The rest of the evening passed quietly enough. Our daughters were generally entertained by the film—which takes place on Nantucket, so they recognized shots of Woods Hole, with Nell pointing out actual places on the sister island to Martha’s Vineyard. Even more exciting, however, was the discovery by our younger daughter of a forgotten stash of Christmas-themed Trader Joe’s JoJo’s in one of our kitchen cabinets. If nothing else, we are eating through our food stash, even if I refrained from eating any JoJo’s.

After the film, Nell and I watched episode four of season two of Broadchurch as well as the latest video from the boys, who wanted to know who put Bella in the wych elm. We reasoned we could then watch episodes five and six the next night—which we did—and two the following Friday evening, in lieu of our regular MSNBC weeknight lineup. There is only so much news about COVID-19 we can watch.

In large part, because only our older daughter had ordered pizza the previous evening, Nell again made homemade pizza. We were out of pineapple, so I had pear with my pepperoni. This time the crust was a bit thicker and chewier. Intending it to be a compliment, I said it reminded me of Domino’s; she eventually decided it was not an insult.

And that night, for personal reasons, I became moody and distant when Nell and I had our end-of-night conversation. I later apologized, after my mood brightened working on the next phase of “rock history” slides I plan to show the girls for our Wednesday afternoon class, but the foul mood returned the following day.

**********

When I went downstairs on the afternoon of April 6, 2020, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 6

I was once again absolutely exhausted, even though I had slept reasonably well. Perhaps it was carryover from our routine temperature-taking; the day before I had registered in the 99’s, even though I rarely go much above 97.5. In this time, it is easy to spin the most innocuous of “symptoms” into something more serious. Throw in my year-round seasonal allergies, and…well, it is a good thing I am not a hypochondriac. Perhaps as a result, I took what was simply Nell forgetting to write out the rest of the day’s classroom schedule as a personal snub.

Meanwhile, our younger daughter was on the verge of tears after some miscommunication with a group of friends. We had to talk it through—our younger daughter inherited my “just bear with me” communication style—for 10 or 15 minutes before we could watch the 106-minute-long Episode 2 of Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns. And that was soon interrupted by Nell insisting they put away their Nintendo switches while we watched.

I did not really care that much, knowing they had watched and enjoyed Phantom Lady under the same circumstances the previous Thursday, and that I am happy to have them draw while I teach in the classroom. Also, I just did not really care that much at that point; I just wanted to watch and enjoy the program with a minimum of fuss.

Nell, however, was having none of it. “Fine, if you do not want to teach them, I can just teach them from 10-12.” That stung, so I rejoined with, “Don’t tell me how to teach!”

To which Nell had the trump card, which she threw over he shoulder at me as she walked up the stairs to record a video for her children’s librarian job:

“Right, what do I know? I only have a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.”

Damn, she is good.

Feeling chagrined, I then expressed my displeasure to the girls, playing the “Do you know how hard your mother and I are working to blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda?” card. It was manipulative—and slightly hypocritical, given my own temporary indifference—but it kinda worked. Both girls payed closer attention to the episode…and the mood lightened considerably. They even enjoyed my brief pause to explain the Volstead Act.

It took until 5:30 or so to watch the full episode. And I learned that even if we primarily watch a video for our class time, I need to do at least a modicum of actual teaching.

Nell and I started sniping again as she prepared Annie’s shells and cheddar with broccoli for dinner, this time even more intensely; at one point, much against all better judgment, I announced I was going to the grocery store, even though Nell was planning to do a spate of such chores the next day. I eventually relented, and we called a truce to watch MSNBC.

Matters finally came to a head when it was time for Nell to go to sleep that night. I wanted to have it out, so I started to do just that. Nell was hesitant at first—this tension had been building for some time, and she was nervous about what might happen should we pursue the matter—but then she opened up as well. She did take the precaution of locking the bedroom door, so that we could not be interrupted by our still-awake older daughter; indeed, the latter brought her Nintendo switch upstairs during this time. And it was surprisingly easy. We explored all of the ins and outs of the situation, ultimately reaching a mutually-satisfying conclusion. Afterwards, we both felt better than we had in weeks. “Why didn’t we do this much sooner?” we asked, realizing that sometimes you just have to push through those mental and emotional barriers.

And for the first time since we began sheltering in place, neither of us had extremely intense dreams.

**********

When I awoke on Tuesday, April 7, 2020—in a far better frame of mind—a proud Nell told me of her adventures in the outside world. She had gone to our local CVS to collect prescriptions—scrupulously avoiding a trio of teenagers not respecting social distance guidelines—and to a small nearby grocery store for some necessary supplies; it has been getting harder to find an open food delivery window online. Upon arriving home, Nell promptly took a long shower.

Some ninety minutes later, when I went downstairs, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 7

Dr. Dobby, meanwhile, has moved on to other pursuits, though it is not clear which Stranger Things world he is trying to enter. Like the rest of us, his world has been turned upside down.

Stranger Dobby

And the artwork continues unabated, as this emphatic statement from our older daughter reveals:

ME April 7

To prepare for our return to the adventures of the Berger family in early-20th-century Philadelphia, I sketched this on the white board.

OK, fine. I erased the original drawing before photographing it. This is merely an artist’s rendition of what had so disturbed our daughters with its lack of skill; admittedly, they are much better artists than I will ever be.

Philadelphia sort of

I deliberately did not start the class until just after 3 pm, because I wanted this to be a shorter, more focused session. The second half of Friday’s class had lasted longer than I had planned, while Monday’s class had been rough. Thus, I wanted to give all of us a bit of a break.

We began with a rapid-fire, wholly-improvised review of the history of my beloved Philadelphia. I followed this with a review of how David Louis Berger, born October 15, 1869 in Pryznasz in what is now Poland, had arrived in Philadelphia in May 1899 with his wife Ida and four young children, settling first less than two blocks west of the Delaware River—and one block from his brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—before moving closer to the Schuylkill River. The two spots are marked with red X’s above.

While this was happening, our younger daughter was drawing a remarkably-good “burger” with lettuce. However, when she then proceeded to highlight it with a penlight for her sister, I lost my cool. “How is this relevant to what we are discussing?” I demanded. She teared up at this—without her Ritalin, it is difficult for her to resist such impulses—which broke my paternal heart. However, we both moved quickly past this interruption with a heartfelt hug, returning to listening to her older sister read about the Berger family in the years between 1913 and 1923, including the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of their great-great-grandfather on October 23, 1919.

Shortly thereafter, we adjourned for the day, with little of note happening after that. Nell simply heated up turkey hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls for their dinner, while I was content to nibble on various leftovers.

Well, all right, I will need to do something about my hair soon.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

A Skeptic is Born

If this blog has anything like a unifying theme, it is evidence-based investigation.

In fact, my original stated purpose was to use a careful presentation of data to answer what I felt were interesting—if not always momentous—questions. Sometimes that took the form of challenging conventional wisdom, and at other times it took the form of thinking critically about arguments I had encountered online. Elsewhere, I engaged in speculative history backed by the best evidence I could gather.

I have even critiqued my own data analyses.

An unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful, outcome of that original purpose is the notion of “interrogating memory.” I am even writing a book with that title.

In other words, I strive to examine every assertion, every question, every story with the same critical-thinking eye. I may not always succeed (confirmation bias, for example, is powerful—and admittedly one reason I prefer MSNBC to other cable news networks), but that is always the goal.

This was not always the case, however.

**********

One of my favorite phrases as a child was “howcum?” Inherently curious—and with otherwise-solid report cards often featuring a variant of “does not like to follow directions,” I questioned everything.

Fairly early, that need to know why led me straight to detective fiction and, a bit later, classic mystery films.

But at other times my innate curiosity failed me, and I allowed the allure of “unknowably mysterious” to blind me to the non-existence of actual “mystery.” This transpired even as Scooby Doo and this underrated movie told me that “supernatural” events have prosaic explanations.

Just bear with me while I outline a pre-adult life spent immersed in pseudo-mysteries.

Fact-checking what I wrote here, I was probably closer to seven years old when I first encountered my mother’s copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, the first astrology book I ever read. My mother was particularly taken with the section on the Libra child, because it seemed to describe my (at times) indecisiveness; the example in the book is how the Libra child cannot decide which breakfast item placed in front of her/him—orange juice, toast, cereal, etc.—to select first. For the record, my wife Nell also ascribes my “on one hand…on the other hand…but on the one hand again” mode of analysis to my being a Libra (just as she ascribes some of her own personality traits to being a Scorpio).

Goodman’s broad overview launched a deeper immersion in astrology, whose ostensible quantitative precision—all those beautiful charts and numbers!—appealed to my mathematical mind. This was followed in short order by numerology, the prophecies of Nostradamus (and other alleged clairvoyants), card reading and many other forms of divination.

Decades later, this is all that remains of my “occult” book collection. You can see how battered and well-thumbed these books are.

Occult books.JPG

Using the red hardback book, I spent much of high school (1980-84) doing “card readings” for my mother and her friends (and, on occasion, my own friends); in retrospect, I was really doing a kind of layperson therapy: having the cards “reveal” (with a healthy dollop of intuition and psychology) what the person being analyzed wanted (or needed) to hear. Between the rush I got for being the “expert” and the attention my “clients” received, it was benign fun for all concerned.

The numerology text picture here is the successor to my first text from the late 1970s; I am not sure what happened to it. And the World Almanac volume is taped together because I practically memorized it in the summer of 1980, when my job co-running the canteen at Camp Kweebec allowed me ample time to read. (It was also when I had perhaps the greatest steak sandwiches of my life—man, those chefs were friendly and talented; hold that thought).

Meanwhile, even as I was absorbing all of this, I was being introduced in Hebrew school to the Gematria. The teacher who taught us this Jewish version of numerology was a Chasidic man named Mr. Devor, who also taught high school science: a juxtaposition which fascinated me). He was also a brilliant and gentle man who I completely adored. In essence, what Mr. Devor taught us was that a proper decoding of the arrangement of Hebrew letters in the Bible would reveal mystical truths (or something). To be fair, I still have the copy of the Hebrew Torah (the first five books only) I bought for further numerological investigation.

Hebrew Torah closed.JPG

Hebrew Torah open.JPG

Looking back, the thing about these divination methods that captured my imagination was the sheer audacious confidence of the assertions presented. To these authors, it was simply an established fact (sometimes couched in the language of “ancient wisdom”) that the relative positions of celestial objects influenced our lives, or that certain combinations of numbers or letters or cards were better or worse (according to Cheiro, they “vibrated” better—whatever that means).

But it was not only divination methods which called to me. For my sixth grade “gifted program” final project, I chose to put together a compendium of the most interesting “unsolved mysteries”—or enigmas—I could find[1]; I even appropriated the word “enigmatologist” to describe what I thought I wanted to be. From Sasquatch (or Yeti or Murphysboro Mud Monster), to the Bermuda Triangle, to the Loch Ness Monster, to Atlantis, to reincarnation, to UFOs and so on—I fervently read what I could find. That is not to say I was not smitten with less “fanciful” unsolved mysteries: I was equally enamored with the Oak Island “money pit,” the statues of Easter Island, the possibility that Anastasia Romanov survived the 1917 execution of her and her family, etc[2].

The thing is, the appeal lay not in the potential to “solve” these “mysteries,” but in the very idea there was any mystery at all. Despite my “howcum?” refrain, I broadly accepted the truth of divination methods; the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, dangerous vortices, Atlantis and ancient aliens (heck, I even wrote a book report in sixth grade about one source[3]); that the lovely Anastasia[4] had somehow survived; and so forth. I suspect some of this was resulted from intellectual malaise; quotidian reality was not exciting enough for me. It may also have been a way to assert some control over my life as my parents’ marriage ended, which began when I was nine years old—or, rather, to cede control to unseen cosmic forces. There was nothing I could do to fix my parents’ marriage—or prevent a series of moves—but if all of this was preordained in some way…

Ancient Mysteries book report.JPG

Or I simply had a child’s combination of imaginative awe and undeveloped critical thinking skills.

And yet…and yet…

Tarot deck.JPG

What strikes me now is how much I kept searching (without quite acknowledging it) for some sort of proof—or at least for some underlying reason for how these things could be true. While it was not until high school (at the earliest) that I first heard the phrase “correlation does not equal causation,” what began to nag at the back of my mind was the question WHY would the location of distant constellations or specific numbers or the random ordering of playing/Tarot cards (I still have my pack, as you can see) have ANY measurable impact on, well, anything? What was the causal mechanism at work in these instances? Or, as I would later frame the question as a data analyst and practitioner of epidemiologic methods (itself a form of epistemology):

What is the most direct and logically-coherent story I can tell to account for the association I have measured between variables X and Y?

Here is where Occam’s razor comes into play: the least complicated explanation for any unexplained phenomenon is usually the correct one.

**********

Not that I necessarily wanted to be dissuaded from my beliefs, mind you.

I do not remember when I first heard of Alan Landsburg, but it was probably around the time my parents separated (March 1977). The book I reported upon in elementary school—In Search of Ancient Mysteries—was first published in 1974 (co-written with his wife Sally Landsburg), launching the “In Search of…” series; I devoured these books. The television series of the same name debuted in 1976, quickly becoming a favorite of mine.

However, when (probably in 1978) I started to read about Atlantis in Landsburg’s 1976 book In Search of Lost Civilizations, I found myself reading instead about Minoan civilization and volcanic eruptions on the island of Santorini. What did any of this have to do, I asked myself in annoyance, with a sunken continent somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean that was once home to the ancient world’s most advanced civilization and maybe had something to do with the Bermuda Triangle—or the Bimini Road?

Pushing through my annoyance, I slowly realized that Landsburg was providing one possible rational explanation for what had inspired Plato’s original story of Atlantis—the conflation of a highly advanced civilization (long since vanished) with an epic natural disaster.

Oh, I thought, that is really cool—and far more intellectually satisfying than the other possibilities. It was the first time I began to shift from “mysterious, just because” to “what mystery?”

Still, I was not quite ready to shift completely from being Ryan Bergara to being Shane Madej (for fans of the Buzzfeed Unsolved channel on YouTube, in which conspiracy-theorist true believer Bergara and extreme skeptic Madej jointly investigate unsolved crimes and supposedly haunted locations)[5].

The real turning point would not come for another six years.

**********

I have written about the nighttime drives I took in the summer of 1984, during the joyful limbo between graduating from high school and enrolling at Yale. In that post, I described how I found the 24-hour Vale Rio Diner—which I would frequent on and off until it suddenly closed in early 2008 (I was horrified to drive there that May, only to find a Walgreen’s instead!),

This diner stood opposite where Route 113 north veers off from Route 23 (to the right if you are driving west, with the Vale Rio on your left). If you follow Route 113 north for 0.3 miles, it makes a sharp left turn towards downtown Phoenixville.

In the summer of 1984, at 450 Bridge Street, directly in front of you before you made that left turn[6], was a pizzeria called Nardi’s that made a pretty fair cheesesteak[7]. That was the same summer I worked at Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA and, while fiddling around on the grill one day, created my specialty sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

Given that I was not quite old enough to take truly late-night drives (I wanted to be home by 11 pm to watch Star Trek, after all), I would generally seek out a place to have such a sandwich supper—and maybe some pie and decaffeinated coffee for desert.

I always had a book with me on these drives. One of those books—which I avidly read in Nardi’s on at least one occasion—was a black paperback with blue lettering and an angry-looking SOLVED written in shiny red letters on its cover; it had first been published in 1975. I had started to read it once before, but like In Search of Lost Civilizations six years earlier, it had annoyed me.

Bermuda Triangle book (original)

Why did it annoy me?

Because rather than proposing something, you know, interesting like energy vortices or force fields from Atlantis or alien abductions as the solution to all those unexplained disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, Lawrence David Kusche—amateur pilot and former research librarian at Arizona State University—was proposing something far more radical.

He proposed that the solution to the Bermuda Triangle Mystery is that there never was a Bermuda Triangle Mystery!

As Kusche puts it:

“My research, which began as an attempt to find as much information as possible about the Bermuda Triangle, had an unexpected result. After examining all the evidence [including contemporaneous newspaper accounts, ships logs, etc.] I have reached the following conclusion: There is no [single] theory that solves the mystery. It is no more logical to try to find a common cause for all the disappearances in the Triangle than, for example, to try to find one cause for all automobile accidents in Arizona. By abandoning the search for an overall theory and investigating each incident independently, the mystery began to unravel.”[8]

Indeed, after a 16-page opening chapter titled “The Legend of the Bermuda Triangle As It Is Usually Told,” Kusche devotes 52 relatively short chapters to a detailed investigation of 50+ supposedly mysterious events, from the first voyage led by Christopher Columbus through the Triangle in 1492 through the Linda in October 1973, nearly always finding a rational (even mundane) explanation that fits Occam’s razor.

And when Kusche could not provide such an explanation?

“With only a few exceptions, the mishaps that remain unsolved are those for which no information can be found. In several cases important details of the incident, and in other cases, entire incidents, are fictional.”[9]

More to the point (and more damning to purveyors of the Bermuda Triangle “mystery” canard):

“Many incidents were not considered mysterious when they occurred, but became so many years later when writers, seeking reports of additional incidents in the Bermuda Triangle, found references to them. It is often difficult to find complete information (even when one wants it) on an event that occurred many years before. […] .Many of the writers who published the events did no original research but merely rephrased the articles of previous writers, thereby perpetuating the errors and embellishments in earlier accounts. […] In a number of incidents writers withheld information that provided an obvious solution to the disappearance.”[10]

Finally, here is Kusche’s lament from the “Update” to the 1995 reissue I recently purchased (I do not know what became of the copy I had in 1984):

“These examples are typical of what has happened in the Bermuda Triangle in the past ten years. Nothing has changed. Incidents of various types, some big, some small, continue to happen. They can be hyped into “great unsolved mysteries” by almost anyone. It is very easy to do. Just don’t bother to check the facts thoroughly, do some imaginative speculating, toss out a few unanswered questions, and use a few exclamation points. Personally, I find it more interesting to dig deeper and look for logical explanations.”[11]

I was on my second attempt to read Kusche’s clear-eyed, well-structured accounts (which should be required reading for any serious student of epistemology) as I contentedly munched on my mushroom provolone pizza steak that night at Nardi’s in the summer of 1984. This time, for whatever reason[12], I was willing, in the author’s words, “to think more critically, to be more skeptical, to be more concerned about the quality of what”[13] goes into my mind.

Once I made that mental leap, though, I was riveted—and each chapter was more satisfying than the last.

And a skeptic was born.

OK, it would still be another two decades or so—during which I learned advanced quantitative methods which forced me to frame every research question with care, precision and the most accurate data available—before I became a full-fledged SKEPTIC with the purchase of this essential volume. But once I finished Kusche’s landmark book, there was no going back.

Until next time…

[1] A combination of over-ambition and laziness resulted in my never finishing the project.

[2] My fascination with unsolved murders would not come until later.

[3] I think it was sixth grade—I neglected to write a date on it. At any rate, my grade on this hand-written, five-page gem was a 98.

[4] I freely admit that I developed a crush on the late Grand Duchess—and, yes, genetic testing finally confirmed her death—the first time I saw a photograph of her.

[5] I recommend watching some episodes, typically around 20 minutes long, if only for the friendly—and often-profane—banter between the two hosts. Despite not accepting the existence of ghosts, I seriously want a spirit box.

[7] I did not actually remember the name of the place, but I found it an advertisement on page 118 of the April 18, 1985 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, thanks to the indispensable Newspapers.com.

[8] Kusche, Lawrence David. 1995. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pg. 275.

[9] Ibid., pg. 275.

[10] Ibid., pg. 276-77.

[11] Ibid., pg. xiii.

[12] I would say my impending enrollment in Yale College triggered an upgrade in my intellectual maturity (or something equally pompous), but that is probably just a coincidence.

[13] Kusche, pg. xiii.