Albatross (Two)

The more I read the lines of the Judy Collins song albatross, the more obvious the meeting seems to be. To me. Some may read this explanation and say, “well duh, of course that’s what it means”. Some may find something altogether different. What follows is what I, myself, believe to be the meaning of what I have called one of the saddest songs ever written.

In its opening lines, the song sets the stage for what seems to be a wedding. The guests, the steeple bells, the veils. But within, I sense a somber note. Reading (or hearing) these lines one could just as easily envision of a funeral. The mourners, the steeple bells, the veils.

After some consideration, I believe the author — Judy Blue Eyes herself — is equating death with that saddest of wedding circumstances, the common tragedy of hopefully past centuries — that of a young woman with dreams of her own, and hope for a bright and shining life, condemned to a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy older man, who offers to his prize little more than survival.

Her own insignificance in all of this is demonstrated as those attending the event impute their own beliefs on who she is, or was. Young men ask and answer their own questions, her own feelings are not considered, whether because they lack importance, or because death has rendered her mute.

But back to the wedding. The routine of her existence provides her a place to be, but also separates her from the broader society. She holds herself captive behind an almost opaque barrier. The colors of the day is an archaic reference to the wedding bouquet, and as the crowd gathers she tosses the bouquet, and in doing so casts away her former life, and with it her hopes and dreams.

The next verse defines the dream. The Prince who rides to save her, to shatter the barrier, and deliver her and bring her the life for which she has so longed.

Guests come for a couple of days and go away, not to be seen again. Her view of the world at large is increasingly oblique. What hope she retains fades as the tragedy of her existence becomes who, and all, that she is.

The iron wheels of the course could be either a wedding carriage, or a funeral cortege. But he iron bells seem not to be wedding bells at all, but are instead calling her away, alone in death. The final lines repeat, and reinforce the chorus. But now we hear — so I believe — the voice of the husband, calling her away to the living death of her new life. “Come away, alone. With me”.

Albatross

For many years I have been fascinated by the Judy Collins song “Albatross”, which I have come to believe is one of the saddest songs ever written. The song appeared on Collins’ 1967 album “Wildflowers” and is one of the first which she herself wrote.

I have at various times prowled the internet to learn the meaning of the song lyrics, perhaps an explanation by Collins herself. But all I have discovered are a few on what are mostly obscure poetry blogs, or the ramblings of (ex?) hippies.

These comments are universally shallow, totally inane, and wrong. So, after thinking I should do so for some time, I am concocting my own inane comments which I will offer here shortly. (It’s great to be retired) The lyrics themselves follow:

Albatross by Judy Collins

The lady comes to the gate, dressed in lavender and leather
Looking North to the sea she finds the weather fine
She hears the steeple bells ringing through the orchard
All the way from town
She watches seagulls fly
Silver on the ocean stitching through the waves
The edges of the sky

Many people wander up the hills
From all around you
Making up your memories and thinking they have found you
They cover you with veils of wonder as if you were a bride
Young men holding violets are curious to know if you have cried
And tell you why
And ask you why
Any way you answer

Lace around the collars of the blouses of the ladies
Flowers from a Spanish friend of the family
The embroid’ry of your life holds you in
And keeps you out but you survive
Imprisoned in your bones
Behind the isinglass windows of your eyes

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone

Even now by the gate, with your long hair blowing
And the colors of the day that lie along your arms
You must barter your life to make sure you are living
And the crowd that has come
You give them the colors
And the bells, and wind, and the dream

Will there never be a prince who rides along the sea and the mountains
Scattering the sand and foam into amethyst fountains
Riding up the hills from the beach in the long summer grass
Holding the sun in his hands and shattering the isinglass?

Day and night and day again and people come and go away forever
While the shining summer sea dances in the glass of your mirror
While you search the waves for love and your visions for a sign
The knot of tears around your throat is crystallizing into your design

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone
Come away alone
With me.

The Death of my Father – Part One

In the years after my return from Vietnam, my family lived in the newly built house in Boulder Hill. At that time it was a summer Saturday afternoon tradition to have grilled hamburgers and fresh sweet corn for dinner. And iced tea – from a huge jar which my mother had sitting in the sun all day long.

In the middle of the afternoon my mother would journey to a butcher shop in Montgomery, where the butcher would, right before her very eyes, grind the Saturday afternoon beef. Before visiting the butcher shop, she, and a number of other ladies, would visit a farm just off Montgomery Road picking out fresh ears of corn, literally as wagons arriving from the fields were dumping their newly cut bounty into the bins.

At the appropriate time my father would position the grill in the driveway, just outside the open garage doors. As the charcoal got going, he would drag out a lawn chair and sit – just taking it all in. If the day was warmer than normal, or perhaps just if he felt like it, he would have a cold beer. A rarity actually; these are the only times I can recall him drinking beer, or pretty much anything else. I would often drag out a chair of my own and join him, though I passed on the beer. In truth I’ve never really liked the stuff.

For my dad, and for my mother as well – children of the depression, survivors of the war – this was, I believe, a dream come true. The setting, the family, and – despite the turbulence of the era – the peaceful nature of it all. For me it was the living embodiment of the Monkees “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, played out on idyllic late Saturday afternoons.

One such quiet and peaceful Saturday afternoon in 1971, my father asked “Say, what you think of this?” And pointed to a pronounced bump on the side of his neck. In that instant, although I was not yet aware of it, my world began to tilt.

Evenings “Downtown” – The Biograph Theater

Roaming the bars and clubs of Aurora and the Fox Valley, as well as our favorite Chicago haunts, my best friend Vern and I were inseparable. Until he met Carol, that is. After this momentous event Vern would more than occasionally spend time in her old neighborhood, on Austin Avenue in Oak Park, or in St Charles when she was at school. This of course left me alone, and to explore, and to range a bit further. In doing so I discovered a couple of new hangouts, some new friends in the neighborhood on N. Lincoln Ave. which seemed to me at the time to coalesce around the Biograph Theater.

I was told that a couple had recently acquired the Biograph, and because of its fame, or notoriety, earned in the 1930s, decided to restore it to past glory and only play old movies. This was great fun, and I can say that my first large-screen viewing of a Marx Brothers movie – “Animal Crackers” – was at the Biograph.

Authors Note: I went to that particular showing because my brother and his friends were at the time obsessed with the Marx Brothers; reading books about them and quoting lines from their movies. After that night I was borrowing the books, and memorizing lines and passages myself. I quickly became, and still am a huge fan of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico and love each of them as individuals. But truth be told, Arthur (ne Adolph) Marx – Harpo – will always be my favorite. In fact, Harpo’s picture stares down at me from my office wall as I write this. So, thanks to my brother David for steering me to a lifelong obsession.

The Biograph theater was of course notorious as the site of the death of public enemy number one John Dillinger in 1936. The time in which I frequented that neighborhood coincided with the release of what I still feel to be the best John Dillinger movie ever made, the aptly named “Dillinger” starring Warren Oates.

I recall how angry the people who lived in the area were after seeing that movie. In actual events, the infamous lady in red had tipped off G-man Melvin Purvis as to when she and John Dillinger would be leaving the theater. As they exited they turned left (or south on Lincoln Ave) toward the alley a couple of doors away where Purvis was waiting. He confronted the gangster in front of the alley and in a scuffle fatally shot him.

This dramatic exciting climactic scene was well produced and well played, with one notable exception. In the movie upon leaving the theater Dillinger walked north on Lincoln Avenue to meet his fate. Locals who had awaited the movie with great anticipation were incensed.

Not growing up in the Biograph neighborhood, I didn’t mind the error in direction so much, and thought the movie was great. I have a copy and I still think so.

Evenings “Downtown” – The Playboy Club

Unlike a lot of our friends in Aurora, my best friend Vern and I, both singularly and more often together, spent a lot of time “downtown”, which is how we referred to the city of Chicago – mostly the area from the Gold Coast to Rush Street, through Old Town and, of course, Wrigleyville.

By the summer of ‘69 we were both members of the Playboy Club. This was the original club; a five-story building just west of Michigan Avenue at 116 E. Walton which Hefner had leased from Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz.

Entering the club, where you are greeted by a Door Bunny, to whom you showed your “key card”. This provided access and also served as an in-house credit card, After entering, a turn to the right and down a couple of steps led to a fairly typical, if rather high-end, cocktail lounge. To the left of the lobby was a reception office and an elevator.

The theme of the club was that it represented what was supposedly the adult male’s dream, the ideal “bachelor pad”. Each of the four floors offered the experience of a different room; Playroom, Penthouse, Library, and Living Room. These floors – accessed via the elevator – allowed one to move easily from cocktail lounge to cabaret to fine dining to dancing without ever leaving the building.

In 1972 Playboy acquired, and moved into the former “Palmolive Building” on the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Walton. The building, and the famous rotating “Lindburg” beacon at the top were renamed for the new owner. The site of the original club soon became a parking structure, and the charm and cachet of the old club was lost forever.

The bachelor pad concept notwithstanding, The Playboy Club was an excellent place to bring a date. It was especially exotic, I think, to the girls we knew in the suburbs, many of whom didn’t venture “downtown” all that often.

One in particular was an altogether charming and delightful girl from Plano –then working as a waitress at the N. Lake Street Big Boy – whom I dated for a while. On our very first outing we drove into the city to see that season’s smash hit movie “The Godfather” at the Chicago Theater. So as to impress her with my sophistication and worldly knowledge we started the evening with drinks at the bar above the 95th floor restaurant in the Hancock Building.

Stepping off the elevator we were presented with just the scene for which I had brought her. The half-floor lounge was a balcony over the restaurant, and the one and two-story high, floor to ceiling windows offered a twinkling array of billion city lights far below. My date turned to the Maître d’ and asked breathlessly, “Can we sit by a window?” He turned, scanned the nearly empty lounge, then smiled and said he didn’t think that would be a problem.

We had dinner at the “new” Playboy Club, and then hustled to the theater where we waited in line, barely making it in for the showing. I liked the movie – very much – as it seemed did everyone else. My date, however, admitted later that while she enjoyed the movie, all she could think of was going back to the Playboy Club and dancing. Which is just what we did, and the evening was a success.

Working at Henry Pratt Company: Part Two

Of the two senior Industrial Engineers with whom, and for whom, I worked, Lynn was a bit older, and perhaps a bit more “grounded”, and as such was, I felt, the senior I.E. and the procedural foundation of the department. Joe on the other hand was more of a free spirit, making him more of the “think out-of-the-box” innovator. From my perspective, as mentors go, this was a nice mix

At first, I associated more easily with Joe. Also, he was a great fan of football and had been a coach at some Junior League level. He and I attended many semi pro games in nearby Joliet Illinois, were he lived. Also a couple of preseason “College All-Star” games at soldier Field.

Despite this it was Mr. Beu with whom I formed a more lasting friendship, which continued after we had both left Pratt, fading only with my relocation to another city.

Despite the differences, or perhaps because of them, I valued my associations with each, learning enough from them so that by the time I moved on to a new job – as a real Industrial Engineer in my own right – I had been given a sound foundation, from which I was able to advance fairly rapidly.

But despite the work, and the learning, I had a great deal of fun working at Pratt. The people of the various departments by whom I was surrounded in the crowded office were, for the most part, easy to get along with. And my immediate colleagues, Lynn and Joe were, each in their own way, pranksters, assuring that the department environment was always, to say the least, interesting.

Working at Henry Pratt Company: Part One

Henry Pratt Company, headquartered in Aurora with, at the time, a second plant in Dixon Illinois, was, and is, a manufacturer of valves. In particular, butterfly valves, which are opened or closed by the rotation of an internal disk (the butterfly of the somewhat stretched metaphor).

My job, as “rate setter” was to apply work standards to various machining and assembly operations – such as the drilling of necessary holes in component parts, or assembling a disk to a valve body. This meant, mostly, adding calculated time values to the controlling paperwork of such work assignments, for the purposes of establishing costs, scheduling, and of course measuring the performance of those actually doing the work.

I have often been asked, over the years “what does an Industrial Engineer do”. To this I have responded with the oversimplified, but accurate answer that “an I.E. is a sort of combination time study man*, and efficiency expert”, and developing, and applying, work standards is at the very heart of all. So, as I would discover, I was in a pretty good position to learn the basics.

Other than IE Department supervisor Frank Fontana, who turned out to be much more than a pretty good boss, there were two genuine Industrial Engineers in the department. In the curious title structure which named me a rate setter, these two senior engineers both held the title of “Methods and Standards Analyst”.

I can only say that I am eternally grateful for these two fellows, Lynn Bue and Joe Ryan, who, each in their own way, quickly became colleagues, mentors, and friends.

*Or woman, as was becoming a reality in my early years in the profession.