‘A Yearbook Encounter,’ essay by Paul A. Bredenberg

[Following is an essay written by my father, Paul Arnold Bredenberg, in 2003. A further explanation will follow. ARB]

A Yearbook Encounter

By Paul Arnold Bredenberg

It started with a newspaper clipping sent by my brother, who still lives in my old home town. The story was a tribute to Naz Servideo, an old acquaintance of mine who died recently. He was a basketball star on our great high school team of ’38-’39, the team that almost won the state championship. We lost by four points. I always felt that we would have won if Naz, our best shooter, had taken just three more shots. Do you suppose that loss is long forgotten and has entirely ceased to hurt? Think again — it’s been only sixty-four years. A fellow needs time.

PaulABredenbergAndTennisHatAbt1965_smallI was a student manager for that team, and the players treated me like one of the family. How many times had I taped Naz’s ankles before he went out on the court? 1 just had to get out my yearbook and find the team picture for that year. Maybe not one of my better ideas, but I couldn’t help it.

There they were. What athletes! Two of them, who also played football, went on after the war to play the end positions (offense and defense in those days) on the New York Giants first team. Both are also now deceased.

But what happens once your yearbook lies open? Your finger turns page after page, you see row after row of those clear young faces, most of them hauntingly familiar. Your finger stops now and then under pictures of the smart and talented and, in my case, of a few girls who caught my eye, gave me “ideas,” but seemed unreachably distant. I found, however, that they had signed their names beside their pictures, so apparently I was not hopelessly shy.

My finger paused for some time under Vito’s picture. It seemed I had always known him. His father had been my barber as far back as I could remember. The next pause was for Archie — tall, raw-boned, tough — but as gentle and kind a friend as you could ask for. The thing is, I knew that Vito and Archie never came back from the war in Europe.

The picture that held my attention for the longest time was the one of Stanley. Seeing that strong young face, with the expression that always seemed to me slightly cynical, my thoughts spun back in time more than sixty years. Stanley was the kid next door, my companion on neighborhood adventures. We walked to school together and were about as close as teenagers can get.

When the war was over and I had received my discharge from the Navy, I went home for a brief visit with my parents before going back to work on my college degree. Approaching the house, I looked down the driveway between our place and the neighbor’s; then upward against the sky I could see the line running between the second floor windows of the two houses. I smiled.

On my first trip upstairs to my room I went over to my desk beside the window. There was my little apparatus, just as I’d left it several years before. I’d put it together with scrap wood, metal and wire. Adding a store-bought lantern-type battery and a buzzer, what I had created was a kind of telegraph terminal. Stanley had put together a similar rig in his room across the driveway, and we had strung a two-way insulated wire through our room windows connecting our “terminals. ”

What we had in mind was to send messages back and forth by Morse Code. But first we had to learn the Code. Perhaps we thought it might be worth a Scout merit badge. We went to work on it and got to the point of being able to chat back and forth at about ten words per minute, maybe more.

Now, years later, 1 thought to myself, just for the heck of it, let’s try it out. Surprisingly, my buzzer worked just fine. I raised my window, pressed my key, but couldn’t tell for sure whether Stanley’s buzzer was sounding.

I found my mother down in the kitchen.

“Mom, I just tried to get a signal to Stanley. Do you know whether he’s home these days?”

Her hand flew to cover her face, as it always did when she was surprised or embarrassed. “Oh, my Lord,” she said. “I forgot to tell you …. His parents got word, oh sometime last summer, I think …. that he was missing in action. Then a few months later someone came to tell them that he … that he would not be coming back … from Europe.”

She reached out her arms to hold me, her eyes watering. “I’m so sorry … I know how you and Stanley ….” I held her close and didn’t try to stop my own tears. The wound was as dose to the heart as any that war would bring me.

Back in my room I sat at my desk a long time, looking down that telegraph line to Stanley’s window. My youthful sentiment at the time was that in the years to come there would always be a kind of connecting line between us, even though one of the terminals lay under a small white cross on a gentle green slope in the north of France.

Nearly sixty years later, that line is still there. It carries no messages in code tapped out with finger on key, but one can tell movement on the line by pressing a finger under a certain small picture in an old high- school yearbook.

[The essay quoted above was published in 2003 in the newsletter for Whitaker Glen, the retirement community where my father and mother, Paul and Gladys Bredenberg, were living at the time. During his last several years, my dad began doing some writing and published a series of essays and poems in the newsletter. I always wished he had done more writing and that he had sought broader publishing venues, but near the end of the life he seemed satisfied to reach his small audience there at Whitaker Glen. This was always my favorite of his pieces, and recently some family members said they would like to read it again. So here it is.]

ARB — 14 November 2015




1972 Memoir: The American Dream

[Note: This is another essay/memoir I wrote awhile back and just rediscovered. Decided to publish it here on Quriosity to give it the exposure and adulation it deserves. AB — 26 June 2009]

The American Dream
A memoir, mostly true, from Spring 1972
by Al Bredenberg
Oct. 10, 2006

Melissa (not her real name) walked with me across the quadrangle after our American Literature class. The sun shone on her curly brown hair through the tall oak trees, their leaves bright green in their early spring growth. Melissa had very large brown eyes and an ample figure that filled out in a pleasing way the tight dress with low-cut rounded neckline, a bright floral print on crinkly fabric like crepe paper.

I asked her to go out with me and was happy when she said she would.

The night of our date, I walked to Melissa’s dorm from the house near downtown Chapel Hill where I lived with my friends John and Linda. Melissa lived in Granville Towers, not exactly a dorm — more of a quasi-off-campus apartment tower for kids with a little more money. When I had lived on campus my first semester, I had lived in Avery, one of the plebe dorms on campus.

Melissa was what at the time I would have called a “straight girl.” I didn’t go out with many straight girls, but Melissa was very pretty and nice to talk to — a doll with cheerleader good looks. And when I asked her out she said yes, so that was a positive sign. That usually didn’t happen with straight girls.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about that date. Knowing my financial situation at the time, I doubt if we did anything that cost money. I do remember that Melissa dressed down for me, wearing jeans with a white blouse. I do remember walking together; there’s a real possibility that the entire date consisted of walking around Chapel Hill and the UNC campus. I remember I told her about the meditation and yoga classes I had been taking from Ananda Marga Yoga Society and about my recent initiation with an Indian teacher called Dadaji. Hearing all of this, Melissa listened politely but didn’t have much to say. I can’t imagine what she thought about this skinny, long-haired, bearded oddball with the expanding consciousness.

Besides American Literature, I was taking Latin, Music Appreciation, and Creative Writing. In American Literature we were studying The Great Gatsby — my second try at this novel, as it was one of the ones I was supposed to have read as a junior in high school.

One day, not long after my date with Melissa (not her real name), our professor, Dr. Allen (not his real name either) started using the phrase “the American Dream” during our Great Gatsby discussion. That phrase actually sneaked out of his mouth and drifted around the room two or three times before it slithered past me and got my attention. He used it in a familiar, pat, matter-of-fact sort of way, but I wasn’t about to let him get away with it.

“What do you mean by ‘the American Dream’?” I blurted out.

Dr. Allen leveled a smug gaze at me, a hint of a smile pulling up the corners of his mouth. He explained the concept in a soothing voice: “It’s the goal we all have as Americans: to achieve wealth and success through hard work and competition.”

I sat back, eyes wide, jaw dropping. “You’re joking, right?”

The silvery, balding professorial head tilted slightly. “That’s what we’re all looking for. That’s what happiness is all about, isn’t it?”

“Nobody really believes that, do they?” Titters arose from around the classroom. I glanced around at my classmates.

“That’s why you’re all here at college. To get an education, get a good job, get ahead in the world.”

“That’s crazy,” I said. “Nobody really buys that, do they?” More titters and a few guffaws. Dr. Allen smiled down indulgently. I glanced wildly around the classroom. “Is that what you all think? Do you really think it’s going to make you happy to make it in this world and get rich?” Their expressions gave me the answer.

“So did you think that was funny?” I asked Melissa after class, as we walked across the brick courtyard in front of the bookstore. Big round eyes, full face, rounded figure. She smiled and nodded.

It came to me that this was going to be my last semester at UNC, even though I loved learning and I was making good grades. I was going to finish the semester in a few weeks and go get a job as a carpenter.

“Why are you here at school?” I asked her.

She shrugged and spoke in a matter-of-fact, ‘well, of course’ tone: “So I can get a job and make a lot of money.”

“Is that really what you think is going to make you satisfied?”

A puzzled smile on her luscious mouth. So beautiful it hurt to look at her. “Well, sure.”

“I don’t believe in it,” I said. “It’s not real.”

Large brown eyes glistening. “I don’t understand what you mean,” said Melissa. Not her real name. Actually, I don’t remember her real name.

AB — Written 10 October 2006, posted here 26 June 2009