The friends of my family, of Louisville, in the 50's and 60's

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!


It is inescapable that the people of your childhood and adolescence are so often larger than life, both foundation and firmament in your imagination forever. 

Here is something of a Dramatis Personae from then of those souls, some particularly bright, some especially deep or kind.... and all veritable in remembrance.  Louisville, Kentucky in the 50's and 60's really was a brave new world of the best sort.  The town may have had far to go, but these people were of a light and temprement that would transform it. It was time! The dreadful, hideous war that had blighted so much life was over.  America bestrode the world, was rich and powerful and everything seemed possible.  These people were part of an incredibly vivacious yeast and intelligensia of Louisville....a small group that were recreating Louisville and the world. They had won WWII and licked the Depression and a greater, more humane, more decent, more just world seemed within their grasp.

Attend.  See these souls. I hope to make them real in your mind as they are in mine;
for in the realm of matter, they live now only in memory.
(Free paraphrade of the words of Lois McMasters Bujold, from her Paladin of Souls)

Dr.John and Nancy Bell and their kids, in age, Jane, John, Jr.(my age), Walter ('Flip') and David and Victor. John was an ugly handsome (like Richard Boone of Have Gun) raw-boned man who reminded me of Lincoln: an immensely kind, quiet, good, perceptive man who was a superb, gifted psychiatrist.  Nancy was an outrageous gusty country woman ( a Ballantine, a family of local note) of great good cheer and decency...as I think back, she was much after the fashion of Molly Ivins. Then as now, I talked too much, and Nancy would say loudly and with love, "Stewart, be still!'.  Their kids were a galloping horde and the house was always a mess and a disaster where chaos and outrageous fun reigned. It was through the back yard and across Spring Drive from my house. Oh my, the Bell kids were so involved and socially on top of things as I, odd duck, was not.  Alas, the family had their share of grief: John Jr. was at Williams when I was at Amherst...and ran off the road into a bridge abutment. John was gone in '08, Nancy in '16.
Both Bill and Mary were M.D.s but neither ever practiced that I knew of.  Bill was the Dean of the University of Louisville Medical School (an institution of some justifiable pride and reputation as the first such west of the Appalachians), Mary kept house and reigned over the chaos (with rather more order than the Bells) of another mob of some four or more chilren (I remember Mike and Mark) and a three story house with a 6'x10' handbuilt slot car track in the basement and an attic completely taken over with an eeeeeenormous HO-gauge model train setup.  I was always welcome.  Mary offered ice-cream to everyone. Oh my, did I wish to be a Furnish.  They had a Chevy Suburban (the predecessor of all SUVs, a sort of truck station wagon) in the '50's, and the whole family would pack up for long trips out west or up to Canada.  At one stop, they even left one of their many kids behind and no one noticed for 15 minutes. I remember Mike furbishing up a fire-engine red Austin Healey bug-eyed Sprite....adding a Judson supercharger and giving it a walnut dash...while doing it, he had the steering wheel off and drove it around with a pair of Vise-Grips pliers clamped onto the splines of the shaft.  I was terribly impressed and envious...though my father had gotten the Bugattis.
Bill could be mistaken for foolish dimwit but had a dry, dry, slow but utterly devastating wit. The stories of it were legend and legion. 
One winter he was teaching a med school class on the top floor of an old building at UofL that had long iciciles hanging down from the roof.  On the chemistry bench at the front of the class he had an enormous test tube along with a big honking bunsen burner and a huge Ehrlenmeyer flask.  Every so often during the class, he would stop, slide down one of double hung windows, lean out and snap off an icicle and put it in the test tube over the roaring Bunsen burner.  When the icicle had melted, he'd stop, pour the melt water into the flask, go to the window and snap off another icicle.  After some 45 minutes of this, a student could resist no longer and burst out with the question, "Dr. Furnish, whatever are you doing?".  Bill fastened his gaze on the questioner, blinked owlishly and then drawled, "Why, I'm uh...uh...making testicles!"
But anyone whoever took Bill for a fool got his ass handed to him, even the mayor of Louisville when he tried to make fun of Bill's model train setup.
You can see Bill and Mary here bottom of the page at one of my parents legendary parties
Milton was with Dad the co-owner of a genuwine Met Opera Viking helmet (seen here with my uncle mugging in it).  Milt ran a call-in talk show at the local  radio station (party of the wonderful, legendary and Pulitzer Prize winning Louisville Bingham publishing empire) back in the innocent days before the sort of raw-meat and lies of Fox and the like.  Nonetheless, Louisville being in Kentucky and somewhat Southern, he would get iggnorat, bigoted pin-headed redneck callers that would leave a reek of nastiness....whereupon Milt would call Dad. Dad would call up and assume a creaky soprano voice and the character of Gwendolyn, a dotty, sweet old maid who just couldn't understand why people couldn't get along and be nice to each other..."Why Mister Metz, I heard that unhappy fellow who just called.  It was sad! Why I know the people he was talking about and they're just as nice as could be....I' don't what he could be thinking or why it he would say..Ooooops, I hear the teakettle whistling, gotta go <click>
Sam was a craggy, booming, immensely stong Swiss who had settled in Kentucky as an agent for a Swiss tobacco firm.  He was made out of granite and indeed, built his house in the country out of stone with his own hands. He would go back to Switzerland occasionally and return with uncut, pure alcohol (190 proof...he would cut it with water once back here, thus doubling what he could bring through customs) liquors like Pear Willums eau de vie and Ancien, an incredibly vile health liquor perhaps made of golden seal and other herbs.  Sam smoked, smoked El Lupos, a Whelling stogie-like twig of a cigar that must of been 50% tar and nicotine.  Once in a visit, I (about 10-12) asked if I might try one.  Sam glinted at my father, who said, "Sure, kid".  I managed to get down about a quarter of it and turned green and nauseous.  That was my one and only experience with tobacco.  Alas, the cigars killed him, and being a rock of a man, he did not go easy. A titan.
Dr. Jack Wolf and his wife Jill was some of those people you I remember for the kindnesses shown to a smart, awkward, misfitting child (me).  He was a plastic and oral-maxillary surgeon and had been a mission doctor in post-war, pre Communist China.  In the days before motorcycle helmets, he devoted a fair bit of his practice to restoring the faces of motorcyclists who had bled off their kinetic energy on pavement....and the reason my father wouldn't let have a motorcyle ("Kid, when you are 21, you can do as you please, but until then...").  He had a small farm and home out in the countryside beyond Louisville, just reachable by bicycle....and, oh joy, a Farmall Cub mini farm tractor that he would let me drive and mow with
He was a wiry, small man of immense strength.  Once, at one of my parents' parties he was dancing with Mary Furnish (taller than he) and he jumped the Two Of Them Onto The Top Of The Coffee Table without missing a step.  As we learn when we age, our greatest strengths and abilities can cruelly desert us: Dr Wolf developed Parkinsonism and died immobile, bereft of body and mind.
Oh my God, Claire! 
Who passed at age 100 in the early days of April 2014.
A gamine pixie (here at the top with Dad and Mr. Radow) who was the sparkling life of the party everywhere she went, because it wasa party if she was there. Bubbling with life and a rolling laugh always but a few words away.  Who had a "difficult" husband.  Who had danced exhibition English Country Dance at a (Sand Diego?) World's Fair in '32. Who came from an free-spirit and communal family (in the 20's & 30's, part of it in Fairhope, Alabama, which was a Single Tax “Colony” based on Henry George’s economics.).Who had 4 talented, gorgeous kids, Chris & Parker & Nancy & Ben.  Parker and I went exploring through rural Kentucky in the family's oh-so-bizarre Citroen DS; we would take an overall compass bearing and then slant off discovering the world, taking the 'roads diverged' by lookinhg at the compass. Later, in college summers and after, I was made family in the wonderful Yelping Hill summer colony (originally an intentional Yale/Vassar/Harvard faculty summer colony) and introduced to the world of West Cornwall, CT.  So much effervescent life, including the wonderful community soccer games with everyone from 5 to 80, from hot Europeans with real soccer chops, to gutsy little kids, to Earl Brecker a humorist writer (who would dribble the ball up to you then start a funny patter that have you laughing so hard that he'd go right by you) to William Sloan Coffin. Which gave entre that led to staff photography for the Lakeville Journal and a winter spent in a log cabin on the edge of Yelping Hill, a mile from the Appalachian Trail.  Claire had shadows in her soul, but the true courage to bring sunshine and laughter to everyone around her.  I feel incredibly privileged to have known her and have been blessed with her attention, care, wisdom, laughter and love. There are some people who don't "do" much in life, no Pulitzer Prize, no public office, or whatever, but the very mention of their name makes people light up.  People who are treasures; Claire was one.  It doesn't seem like she could ever be gone from the world.
Mr. Wehle moved into the neighborhood when my father was a boy shooting marbles.  He became something of the neighborhood's gentle godfather. Once a year, he write, illustrate and bind a story book out of grocery bags and, with great ceremony, much anticipated by the neighborhood children, would read it to them. He was still alive in my youth, a bridge between my father's youth and mine.

Here in a poem of mine, Mr. Wehle takes a bow:
In my youth,
there was a neighborhood
godfather
of the best sort.

He had been young
when my father
was a youth.
By the time I came along,
he was white-haired
but still dapper,
still gracious
an elf with sparkling eye,
Mr. Wehle,
who would play a mandolin
and sing old songs in
a high clear voice.

When I was in college,
cancer took him.
My father told me
and sent me off to visit him
in the hospital,
towards the end.

Still gracious,
still wanting to know
if I would like a snack,
how wonderful to see me
and how was I?

Nothing of himself,
his pain, his doom.

A true gentleman.
Grace under pressure: the true courage.
Oh my, I wonder how they are. I had no social skill as a kid, no coordination, too smart, talked too much, had no pretensions...thus I didn't fit in with my economic peers, who were high school fraternity and cheer leaders and atheletes.  I ended up drifting into the periphery of the blue-collar lower middle class kids who accepted me as this weird kid.  And as I had messed with cars and machinery, I first struck up friendship with Richard Hutchins, a wry, easy-going fellow that didn't take himself seriously.  He gave me entre into the Chevy hot rod gang.  Its leader was Mouse, a laconic, wicked-witted guy, maybe 120 pounds, 5'1"...and the guy who knew how to build the hottest engines around.  His driveway always had some project going or someone had dropped by for advice....Mouse would perch in a squat on top of the fender and point out where and what had to be done. The gang had one of those Harley Davidson tricycle motorcycles with the big trunk...which they had insulated, would pack with ice and keg for their picnics.
Richard's famous motorcycle progression started with a little putt-putt Sears-Roebuck moped.  Eastern Parkway was 4 lane highway built long ago with a 40' treed grass sward in the middle, wide concrete gutters and lined with big trees.  One day he was zipping along the gutter with his moped and the proverbial little old lady holding a bag of groceries stepped out from behind one of those trees...then seeing Richard zipping towards her, she screamed, dropped the groceries, froze and covered her eyes.  Richard, with cars to his left, managed to pull the Moped up over the curb and ran into the tree to avoid the LOL.  The Moped was totalled, and Richard had the most impressive set of bruises, though nothing was broken.
Fast forward to Christmas.  One of the rich kids at my high school had a Triumph 650, then a monster machine, that he had disassembled to cleanup and soup up.  His parents had an attack of sanity and enough money that they bought him a brand-new Corvette, likely to save his life....and the rich kid sold Richard the 650 for a song all apart: the frame and some bushel baskets of parts. Sometime in a bright sunny late winter day, Richard had it all back together and the hot rod crowd gather for the startup.  Now when you start a rebuild for the first time, the timing is off, the spark's off, the carb isn't right and you're lucky if the silly thing fires at all (a big help since then you know you're more or less in the ball park on all the settings).  So Richard kicked the starter, and hot damn, it fired! Or back fired through the carbuerettor, which given that it had be primed liberally with gas, caught fire.  In the crowd was Moose, a varsity linebacker of marginal wit, who thought quickly and, taadah!, pulled the gas line off the carb to starve the carb fire!  Of course, the contents of the fuel tank then ran out the hose onto the ground and made a merry fire that pretty much torched the bike.  The carb ended up as a sad little pancake of melted pot metal.  It was another 2-3 months before Richard finally got it on the road.