All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
I marvel at the ease with which I lapse into reverie, these days. Sitting here at the computer with some intended task to do, I often find myself drifting away, sailing on The Sea of Memory. It is said that at a certain age, one can hide their own Easter eggs. Well, maybe I have arrived there, for when I set out on such a journey, I have no clue where it will take me. Waves of thought gently propel my mind across the Gulf of Time, until I set foot on some long forgotten shore that I have walked upon before. The beach is strewn with cast off dreams and souvenirs of better days. Slowly eroded by the winds of change, faint footprints in the sand remain. With faltering step, I seek to trace their path, again.
Just now, a name that hasn’t crossed my mind for over fifty years, like an answer floating up from the murky depths of the “Magic 8 Ball” of my mind, unexpectedly appeared: "Harry Schulke". He was one of my art teachers, the most important one, at the University of Michigan in 1955, my Freshman year.
One time, while lecturing our class in design, he made a statement that I’ll never forget. He said: "A person must “Catch Fire” at some point in their lifetime". He meant become inspired, set ablaze with a passion and desire that will govern the course their destiny will take. And he added that: "If this event does not happen during one’s college days, it is never likely to take place."
Wondering, today, if and when, I ever became inflamed, I suddenly realized that I did! And I recall the exact time and place. It was not when I was in college, but many years before then, when I was four years old, living on my little street in Berkley, Michigan. There was a girl there, a playmate’s teenaged sister, living down the street from me. She had borrowed a marvelous book from the Detroit Public Library. It was an impressive volume called “The Art of Walt Disney” by Robert D. Field. And, being something of an artist, she had rendered what seemed to me to be a perfect copy of the most wondrous illustration in the book, a scene from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. It depicted Pinocchio, on stage, with the provocative French marionette, alluring to me, even then. I thought this large impressive work of art was the most wonderful thing that I had ever seen. Yes, it was there, at that moment, beholding my young neighbor’s magnificent painting that I first burst into Flame.
Oh boy! The ship is under full sail, now. Anchors aweigh! Navigating swiftly, from memory to memory, I sense a journey underway ... one, in which I drift away from my first childhood sweetheart to another, and ultimately leave the U of M, behind me, to steer a course for New York City, with Harry Schulke at the rudder.
I was extremely shy at Mumford High. I would never say "Hi" to anyone, unless they first said “Hi” to me. I was suffering from a complex derived from my size. Even in elementary school, I was bigger than everybody, including all the teachers. Therefore, I stooped over in an ill-conceived attempt to look shorter. Years of doing that succeeded in transforming me, I might better say “deforming” me, from a 6'4", 260 lb. Baby Huey, to a 6 foot Quasimodo. Ironically, the other students thought I didn't speak, because I was "stuck-up". But In Art classes, of which I took all that my program would allow, I became a different person. There, I was a Star!
No one wanted me to be on their team in sports. In fact, the captains would "choose up" a second time, when all players were divided, and only I remained, to see which team had to take me. Of course, I HATED sports! But in Art class, whenever there was a project, I was always the leader of a group, and everyone clamored to be on my team. No wonder! They only had to sit and watch me, gladly, do most of the work, and they would share an "A".
Looking back, I realize it was a lonely life. Although it was required that every one of the two thousand students at Mumford High take, at least, one art course, I was the only one in the entire school with any appetite or aptitude for art. No wonder my art teacher, Mr. Siddall loved me. His was a thankless task. I, alone, appeared to justify it. Both he and his talented wife Dorothy, she was an artist, too, and the mother of three charming children, opened their hearts and home to me, and made me feel like a member of their loving family. Until I went to college, they were the only artists that I knew.
In those days, there was an annual contest, of sorts, called the the Scholastic Art Awards? There was an Art high school in Detroit, called "Cass Tech”. It was in a lousy neighborhood, but all the artistically talented kids in the city, usually, went there. The students of Cass Tech would win 75% of all the Scholastic Art Awards in Detroit, each year. I won the other 25%. I also came in second for the Detroit Christmas seal contest, one year, and won first prize, the following year, with a stylized version of the same religious theme I rendered realistically, the year before. It depicted a shepherd beholding the star of Bethlehem, which, in this case, was the star in the center of a cross, the logo of the TB Sanitarium, floating in a Maxfield Parrish sky, evidence of the cat and mouse game I played, all my life, ricocheting between two religions.
Copyright The Walt Disney Company
Here are my parents at the Award Presentation Dinner, looking inordinately proud, with my beloved art teacher and mentor, Mr. Siddall on the left, and Mumford high school’s Principal on the right. I was also the president of the Art Club and Art Director of the Yearbook. But, outside of the "Art World", I was still shy.
At the age of fifteen I went on a rigorous diet, eating only protein, three meals a day, and never cheating for two years. By seventeen, I had lost enough weight to acquire a steady girlfriend, Marcia Nelson. I adored both her and her family. Her mother was an amateur artist, very amateur, indeed, but, at least, there was a point of shared camaraderie. The mere fact that any mother had “interests” that did not involve playing canasta, was amazing to me!
Marcia was a nice girl, deliciously healthy, robust, and clean. I loved to breathe in her fresh air essence. She slept in a pink bedroom, on a bed with a pink canopy, and wore pink poodle skirts and voluminous crinolines. She was one year younger than I was, and one grade behind me at Mumford High. I dated her for well over a year, almost two. Alas, when it came to interests, Marcia didn't have any, other than going out with me, which, at the time, suited me fine. Our favorite pastimes were “babysitting” for her little sister, and seeing movies, from the back seat, at the drive-in theatre.
Marcia was of a mind to go to college at U of M. Her dad had gone there; and he was a big football fan. She had no idea what she wanted to study, but intended to choose “whatever course was easy”, while majoring in, "waiting to get married". Thus, college seemed to almost be a waste of time and money, for she had already found me! We spoke of little else than what we would do when we were married, and what we dare do in the meantime
At the University of Michigan, I discovered that there really was a World out there, beyond the rarified atmosphere of Mumford High, and met another girl, named Lois Malzman. She was an art major too. Lois was an older, more sophisticated version of "Eloise". Having grown up in Manhattan, she attended the High School of Music and Art, and had seen and done it all, museums, galleries, concerts, cocktail parties, Broadway shows, and anything else that you could name. She was an 18 year old woman of the world, precociously rushing into middle age. I was attracted to her worldliness and intelligence. She never opened a book all year, until the night before an exam, and still maintained a 4 point average. And Lois was attracted to me, due, perhaps, to my lack of sophistication. I believe she saw me as an innocent, which was all too true. I was her own, not so little, Catcher in the Rye. And I had set my sights on catching her. Thus, Marcia and I broke up. It was hard to do! Hard for Marcia, mostly, as she had invested so many of her dreams in me. I felt deeply guilty. Nonetheless, I did it! And Lois and I began “going steady”.
Enter Harry Schulke! He witnessed this attraction growing, literally right under his nose, and took it on himself to consul each of us separately, in what he apparently considered a valiant and justifiable effort to nip our blossoming romance in the bud. Although, Lois and I were the same age, she was clearly more mature than I was. That’s a lot of what I found so attractive about her. Her limitless intellect amazed and fascinated me. I had never before knowingly had the pleasure of being in the company of someone so vastly more intelligent than me. Besides that, she was cute, funny, and sexy.
Much to my amazement, Harry took me aside, one day, and did his best to seriously convince me that Lois was “not right” for me. He explained that she was too experienced and “blasé”. And then, he let loose with the most damning thing that he could say: he proclaimed that she was “Jaded”. I didn’t even know what jaded means; I later looked it up in the dictionary. Then, he did the same to Lois, as she reported back to me. He told her that I was much too young and naive for her, and she needed someone more mature. He also pointed out that because I was so big, and she was so petite, there was a size discrepancy that bordered on comedic.
In the end, this futile intrusion that some would consider meddling, only made the attraction stronger, and spelled it out for us more clearly. He had nailed it, giving voice to the very qualities that we found, in each other, to be most attractive. To this day, I wonder at his motives, and the very fact that I still put a well-intentioned spin on what he did, is probably the best indicator that I was, and still remain, naive.
I'll never forget the day I took Lois home to meet my parents. They couldn't stand each other. Lois thought they were an embarrassment, and they thought she was 25 years too old for me. To make matters worse, I was so nervous about the whole endeavor that I forgot to fill my parents’ car with gasoline, and ran out right in front of the house on Seven mile Road. How embarrassing!
In this photo, my dad insisted on taking, the most conspicuous component of my beloved ”Hi-Fi” set, the awe inspiring “Klipsch Corner Horn” looms in the corner, ominously. Clad in its stylish coat of blonde mahogany, it was the true love of my young life, my most cherished obsession.
Now, I’m sailing farther into long forgotten waters, and remembering what a strange year it really was, that year at Michigan. I loved the Art School, even though it was abysmal. For a guy with nearly no self-esteem, I suddenly felt like Pablo Picasso. I actually got an award for the highest grades of any freshman in the school of Architecture and Design. Well, I did work my ass off, that first semester. Then Lois taught me how to get away with murder. And, from that moment on, I spent all my time with her, making out in the basement of her sorority. I didn't work at all the second semester, and under her tutelage, still got the same grades. I even won a Golden Key that came with a membership in a make-believe Fraternity, a so-called “Honor Society” that didn’t exist in physical reality!
The key was presented at a celebratory dinner. One of my friends from Mumford, Thomas Bickel got the same award as me. At Mumford High, he was even more shy and out of it than I. He got all A’s, and carried his school books the wrong way. By today’s standards, he might be, mistakenly, thought gay. We often sat together in the cafeteria, because, like me, his friends were few and far between. I hadn’t seen him all that year at Michigan, and until the awards dinner, I wasn’t even aware that he was there. And so, we dined, together, one last time.
The fact was, I didn’t have many friends at Michigan, either. In the dorm, I got along with with everybody, but not so much with my roommate, Howie. He was from New York City, and had a catastrophic case of acne, which made him extremely unhappy. Howie never spoke to anybody, including me. He was just beginning to open up, and make some friends, when he went home for Thanksgiving, and did not return to school again.
In contrast to the silence between me and Howie, I am, just now, remembering the friendship that I formed with a deaf boy who lived in the room next door to me. Because he had never heard the sound of his own voice, his speech was not easy for some to understand. But as I could comprihend what he was saying, and always made the effort to make my lips easy to read, we became friends. I found it almost magical to converse with him silently, moving my mouth, without the need to make a sound. He was one of the nicest people I ever met. There was no hint of anger or cynicism in him. Because he had never heard the trash that spews forth from the mouths of his fellow men, he always thought the best of them.
The friends, and unknown enemies, I made in Art class were a different matter. Ability-wise, there was a division between the haves and the have-nots in the Art Department at U of M. My friends, were those few with whom I had something in common, a modicum of “talent”. And then, there were the rest, those who had no talent whatsoever, and shouldn’t have been in art school to begin with. This later group was consumed with jealously, most of which, I came to learn, was directed towards me. There was, at least, one anonymous person, among them, who disliked me so intently that they would deface my work, whenever it was chosen to be displayed in the hallway. And it was displayed in the hallway, almost every day.
So, once again, Harry Schulke stepped in; or should the word be, “overstepped”?
I can’t remember what heavy handed excuse he concocted to get me out of the classroom for an hour. Each art class was 4 hours long, and I never missed a day. It was pretty obvious to me that he was up to something. In my absence, he delivered a lecture. Lois, who had a photographic memory, repeated every word he said.
The lecture was about Jealousy, how toxic and self-destructive it can be, and how it demeans one’s dignity and erodes the soul. The lecture was about some of the other students, and how they regarded me. Bottom line, Mr. Schulke emphasized the message that “Just because a person has talent and money, that is no reason to dislike them”. Somehow, the rumor that my parents were well-off had traveled to Ann Arbor. I really don’t know how. You can bet your life it didn’t come from me. All through four years of high school, I had kept that impression a secret, successfully.
One remark that was relayed to me, took place when some of the talentless majority were discussing a project we were assigned, to create a model art gallery, using paintings clipped from magazines. What’s Birnkrant going to do? The answer was, “His parents are buying him the Louvre!” Harry’s friendly chat about how to cleanse one’s life of envy, ended with a warning. If he ever caught anybody defacing another students work, they would be expelled from school immediately.
Before you, too, start to dislike me, or are erroneously impressed with my ability, or I appear too boastful, let me confess. The "Art Program" at the “University of Michigan School of Architecture and Design” was a Farce. It didn't take much talent to be one of the best “Art” students there. My grades were being compared to others, who were studying Architecture. Architecture was not a snap, and no one got all "A’s, in that. Furthermore, “Art”, that is, doing art, as opposed to Art History, was, just about, the easiest course at Michigan. It was perfect for any girl who wanted an easy a way to attend college, and seek a mate in the fertile fields of Med School. Thus, almost all the students in my art classes were girls, of which, only two or three had anything resembling talent, and all the rest were hopeless. Hopeless at making art, that is. They all had the highest hopes of making art their hobby, while they set about hunting for a hubby.
Whatever one does in Art School, the teacher never dares give it a grade lower than a "C", and deem it "Interesting". And all it took, in my opinion, to do something “interesting” was sitting on a sheet of paper with a pencil up your ass. Beside myself, there were only three boys in the class. And two were on football scholarships! The third was my good friend Charles Rasch.
I’ll anchor here, momentarily, and say a few words in memory of Charlie. In so many ways, he was extraordinary. I could believe he was a time traveler, who, upon returning to his point of origin, somewhere in the "Roaring 20’s", was accidently cast into the 1950’s. His heart and soul was still back then. And he was a Joker; everything he did was funny. Just to be in his company meant you were having fun. In appearance, he was a cross between the young Alec Guinness, and Dwight Frye, the actor who played Jonathan Harker to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Remember the madman with an appetite for bugs? Charlie could do a spot-on imitation of him, as you see him doing in this photograph. It was taken with my tiny Minox camera, no bigger than a pack of chewing gum; thus, the grainy quality.
Yesterday, I looked up Charles Rasch on Google. I had a difficult time finding him, until I discovered that after he left U of M, he was better known as “Ragtime Charlie”. I didn’t realize that he played the piano, perhaps he didn’t when I knew him, but it is most fitting, as he was of the Ragtime Era at heart. Sadly, he passed away in 2011. From what I could ascertain, he appears to have lived a charming life, and left behind a wife and family, and a library of photographs, which his estate donated to the University. I also learned he made several LP recordings, both solo and with a partner, known as “Sister Kate”. Those, along with several videos, are available on You Tube. That’s how I unexpectedly spent much of yesterday, listening to Ragtime Charlie, playing Ragtime. The few photos that appear on record covers, disclose the fact that it is unmistakably him. The way he parts his hair and the ever present neckties he wore to art class are still there..
Charlie was a good artist in his own uniquely old fashioned way. His drawings embodied the essence of bygone days. They were often pleasantly risqué. One gag he did variations on, repeatedly, was a never ending array of naughty items he pretended to be peddling surreptitiously. With something tucked discreetly under his left lapel, he would sidle up to somebody, and in a voice, most comically sinister, say: “Psssst! Want to buy a some feeelthy pictures?” In this case, it was a “Feeelthy Puppet”. He whipped this object up, in a few minutes, in design class one day. It embodies the good natured naughtiness of Charlie, and evokes a feeling of the notorious 8 pagers, and all that was considered forbidden and risqué in the 1920s. I was so taken by this spontaneously created work of art that Charlie gave it to me. It is something that I have cherished to this day. I treasure it all the more, now that I know that he is gone.
And so it was, thanks to the lack of competition, I felt like Leonardo da Vinci, Old Master of the Freshman Class, and, from what I heard tell, all the other classes, as well, Sophomore, Junior, Senior, too, maybe even Grad School. I went up to the top floor of the art building, one day, to check out what the Master's Degree candidates were up to: pastel portraits of their pets! My favorite was a cocker spanial, lying beside its doggie bowl. Yes, I was having my best year yet! And It felt good, getting great grades, without having to break a sweat. Better still, I was in Puppy love, and I was the puppy, just learning how to wag my tail.
Then, suddenly, the roof fell in! In the form of Mr. Schulke, once again. This time he was not alone, but he was, nonetheless, the first, the first of my three art teachers, who separately, secretly, and independently of each other, at the risk of their own jobs, did a valiant, generous, and dangerous thing.
It was not easy for them to do. There was a subtle air of sadness about teaching art in undergraduate school. Although, it was never openly said, it was generally understood, at least, back then, that aspiring artists who could not succeed in the outside world were compelled, through necessity, fear, or fatigue, to teach, instead.
My other favorite teacher, Mr. Wilt, a kindly man, who still painted in his spare time, expressed to me the wish that his life had turned out differently, and urged me to save myself, from a Fate like his, while there was still time. The massive school of Architecture and Design at Michigan was like a slowly sinking ship, upon which many a failed career could drift. In hope of lightening the load, all dreams had been thrown overboard, years ago. Now, these three kind men were taking me by the hand, and guiding me to a lifeboat.
One at a time, over a span of several weeks, each asked me to see him privately, and advised me that if I wanted to be an artist, I HAD to leave U of M, and attend a REAL Art School, instead. Apparently, once every few years, a student who has enough potential and ability to actually make a living doing art, without becoming an art teacher, mistakenly enrolls in the University, and, this time, I was he.
I was devastated, but I knew in my heart that what they said was true. Damn! I was having such a great time, too! And now I had no choice but to leave it all behind me, or resign myself to a life of mediocrity. So, I arbitrarily applied to Pratt Institute. I knew nothing about Pratt, other than the fact that it was in NYC, and that was, in itself, enough for me. Coming from Detroit, New York seemed to be the center of the Universe, the only place to be.
With my academic average, Pratt was not about to say, "Go Away”. Nonetheless, they still sent me the Pratt equivalent of the "Famous Artist's Talent Test". You know, those ads you see in magazines: "DRAW PINKY" or “Binky”, cute little animals in profile. Nobody ever wins the contest, but the losers, which is everybody, inevitably, get letters, telling them that they have “Art Talent”, and a representative wants to come to their house to sign them up for a mail order art course. I knew all about it, because when I was younger I drew “Twinkie”. Then, they sent me a booklet to complete, in order to assess my art ability. I drew in some missing telephone poles, and they wrote me that I had "art talent". Next, they set up an appointment to come to my house on Seven Mile Road to sell me correspondence classes, but canceled it, at the last minute, when they realized that I was only 10 years old.
Now, I got the equivalent book and test from Pratt. They asked me to draw my house, a kitchen appliance, and illustrate myself in the most exciting experience of my life, and some other stuff I don't recall. It was clear that the test also served to assess one’s background, economic status, and race, as well. I knew that I was on solid ground with a carefully rendered top of the line Mix-Master blender, and the English Tudor house on Seven Mile. My Most Exciting Experience was a lie. I portrayed myself as a kid in the cab of a locomotive with the engineer allowing me to hold the throttle. No remarks, please! Before I submitted the completed test, I showed it to Harry Schulke. He said it was "the worst thing, he had ever seen me do". Several weeks later, I got a nice letter of acceptance from Pratt Institute. They broke official protocol, to tell me that among that year’s applicants, my test was the best they had received.
At every turn, it seemed, I came face to face with the absurdity of art school, and the realization that everything is relative. Deep inside, I knew that Harry Schulke was right, the Art Department at U of M really was a waste of time. My seeming prowess there was merely an illusion, I had to learn to swim in wider waters if I hoped to succeed at, one day, doing art on the High Seas of Reality.
And so, I left them, behind me, my two best friends, Lois and Charlie. Had I stayed, most likely, Lois and I would have married, and I would not have had to wait, until yesterday, to hear Ragtime Charlie play. But the fire that was lit in Berkley was driving me to be as good an artist as I could be. So off I went to New York City, and from there, at the height of the Beat Generation, I beat a path to Paris France.
In that summer, between the University Of Michigan and Pratt, I seized an opportunity to go on a chartered student flight to Europe, arranged by U of M, on Flying Tiger Lines. There was actually a tiger face, with grinning teeth, painted on the nose cone of the plane. For two hundred dollars it dropped us off in London, and eleven weeks later, picked us up in Amsterdam. In between, we were on our own. I traveled with three other students from my dorm, who invited me to join them.
The flight took off from New Your City, so I went there seven days too early. As far as my parents knew, I was staying with my three traveling companions on Long Island. But, actually, I got a cheap hotel room, on Times Square, and spent a lovely week with Lois Malzman. One night, during that time, we went to the Bronx to meet her parents. They were as unimpressed with me as my parents had been with her. Helping with the dinner dishes, I made the fatal error of picking up the wrong bar of soap. Thus, they discovered that I wasn’t kosher. Not Jewish enough to date their darling daughter. They couldn’t wait to see the back of me.
When the week was over Lois saw me off at the airport, and a few minutes later, by a curious twist of fate, I found myself on a 13 hour flight to London, sitting beside, ( would you believe?) Harry Schulke! How strange are the workings of Fate!
Our thirteen hour conversation was quite surreal. It was as if the year behind of us, and, indeed, all the years that led up to it, as well, were like a movie we had just seen. And we were dispassionately discussing the film, in the past tense, fully aware that it was over, and a new era was beginning. Harry appeared to be probing, seeking answers to many things that puzzled him. He made it clear that he believed that talent is hereditary, and continued to press me as to who in my family might account for my ability. We assessed them one by one, all my relatives, beginning with my parents, and grandparents, then, aunts and uncles, first and even distant cousins, as he tried, without success, to verify his theory. My Uncle Cecil who wrote the Pepsie Cola Jingle did not impress him. Finally, when I told him about my Uncle Arthur, who of all ten Birnkrant brothers, I most admired, and was, not only, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, but was also a writer, Harry, felt he had the answer he was seeking. “That explains it!” he exclaimed, with a great sigh of relief.
Then things got weirder. I can still recall his exact words, as they are not the sort of thing one ordinarily says in what purports to be a friendly conversation. Nor are they words one easily forgets. In a kind of nostalgic reverie with no apparent malice in it, and seemingly no intention of hurting me, he introspectively mused, “I don’t know why I hated you!” I did an inner double take! Then he continued; “I think that I was envious of your talent, at such an early age, and the fact that on top of that, your parents had money." Of course, I had no idea how to respond to this admission. I thought back to the things Lois had told me, the things he said on that day he lectured the class about their attitude, and the corrosiveness of jealousy. Clearly, that lecture had been directed at himself, and what was eating him, as well, maybe, most of all. These were his own demons, issues that he was wrestling with, himself.
Alas, I had no equivalent confession that I could share with Harry. In my puppy-like fashion, I had bumbled ahead, doggedly, never thinking as deeply about him, as he had about me. The conversation continued, throughout the transatlantic crossing, and ended amicably. We both sensed that this unexpected chance encounter was the last time we would speak to each other, perhaps, the last time we would meet. After eleven weeks in Europe, Harry would return to Michigan, and I would continue on the path that he, and Destiny, had planned for me. I have no memory of seeing him, again, on the return flight home from Amsterdam.
Lois met me at the airport when the plane arrived in NYC. My parents were there too, unfortunately. From there, my Mom and Dad drove me, and my clothes and art supplies, which they had brought from home for me, to nearby Pratt, where classes were due to begin in a few days. That was the last time I saw Lois, until over three years later. But we continued to correspond throughout the next semester. One of her letters was most distressing. She informed me that Harry Schulke had passed out, while standing in front of his design class, delivering a lecture. The diagnosis was a brain tumor. A short time later, she wrote me that he passed away.
Over time, the long-distance romance with Lois could not be sustained. She became the president of her sorority, and, eventually, fulfilled every Jewish parent’s dream by marrying a doctor-to-be. I met her again, by chance, for an hour, three years later. I had just returned to U of M, after a year in France, and she was just about to leave. We bumped into each other in the art building. I was in the wood working shop cutting out the parts for a Victorian toy theatre, when, by chance, Lois came walking in. She still smelled the same, a unique odor that I had always found attractive. We went out for coffee. I could tell she was not happy. Her husband was being sent to Alaska, far from cosmopolitan Manhattan. The concept of Lois Malzman living in Alaska seemed utterly grotesque to me. She talked about the fact that she was considering not going with him. I never learned whether she actually went, or not. From time to time, I’ve searched for her on the internet, always in vain, for I do not know her married name. I wonder if she is still alive? I would love to speak to her again.
I still remember, with regret, the smartass thing I said at the Award Presentation. A middle-aged woman came rushing up to me, bubbling with enthusiasm and expressed her appreciation that a young man, such as myself, would choose to portray an inspiring Christian religious scene. I stupidly said, “Lady, I’m Jewish!” What a ridiculous reply! Especially, as it was half a lie.
Yes, I was a different person in art class, outgoing, confident, and in spite of comments like the one above, considered funny. Art was the doorway, through which I developed a seed of self-esteem. Like a tender shoot, I nurtured and pruned it over the years, until it grew, and spread to other fields as well. Unlike the average youth, today, or the Jewish child of days gone by, I was not injected with ill-deserved self-confidence at birth. I earned every scrap of self-esteem I ever had, the hard way, through my own achievements.
Simple isn’t it, beginning then, a future that embodied Art, Disney, and even France, lay ahead of me. Oh, and a burning desire to own that book, which I pursued for the next eleven years. If that volume still sits on the shelves of the Detroit Library, today, the checkout card will display my name, repeatedly, from 1942 to 1953. Throughout those years, that book spent more time at home with me than it did at the library.
I finally found a copy of my own, in a fitting touch of poetic destiny at the bookstore just along the street from the Paris Opera, on my first journey across the sea, when I was 15. It instantly became my most treasured possession.
At the time that I first beheld that glorious vision of Pinocchio, I could already draw Donald Duck and Goofy. By the second grade, I had the developed the ability to draw every Disney character by memory. And thus, on “entertainment” days, my party piece was to stand at the blackboard and quick sketch any character the class could name. Nonetheless, it was not until I was a teen that I dared hope to approximate the artistry of that wonderful painting I had seen.
After unexpectedly revisiting grade school, my train of thought has transported me, back again, to Harry Schulke. Uncertain how to spell his name, I, just now, looked him up on Google. There is only one obscure mention of him there. He is listed, among others, in relation to a film he helped to make at the University in 1956. I recall that I was in that movie. Well, my hand was in it, anyway. He shot a sequence of my arm, seen from the elbow down, holding a paintbrush and articulating a quick, almost calligraphic, drawing of a young dancer, in India ink, the sort of thing that was considered arty in those days.
Mr. Schulke was a most imposing person, thirty years old and good looking. He had a close cropped brush cut and looked Picasso-like and arty, while, at the same time, somewhat military. He was imposing, in that, he was dynamic. His assignments were always interesting and offbeat. He was also imposing, in that, he imposed himself and his opinions on the lives of his students, and foremost among them me.
Apparently, he did this out of a sense of duty and his own interpretation of responsibility, and it was basically well intentioned, if inappropriate, to some degree. His concern was, apparently, for my best interests, which is curious, in light of the fact that he later confessed that, all along, he “hated” me. This whole situation was extremely strange. Many aspects of it remain a mystery to me, to this day.
Update: The tale above was written over a year ago. Today is December 17, 2015. Christmas is a week away. This afternoon, the name “Solomon” occurred to me. Was this a distant memory that suddenly reappeared, or was it whispered in my ear? Could Solomon have been Lois’s married name? And so, I Googled “Lois Solomon,” and clicked on images. My heart missed a beat as I beheld a blurry photo, clearly, taken many years ago. Sadly, I was just one more click away from seeing her Obituary. She passed away a little over a month ago:
“Solomon, Lois A. 7/15/1936 - 10/23/2015 Ann Arbor, MI. Lois succumbed to complications of Alzheimer's dementia on October 23, 2015, following a decade-long struggle.”