Just Movin’ Air
I grew up in Manhasset, NY during the forties and fifties, when white picket fences and Ozzie and Harriet portrayed the all American, Norman Rockwell life-style. Coming from an Irish Catholic mother, I was one of six children…falling right in the middle as the fourth boy, with two younger sisters. My father, Gordon “Chris” Griffin was a professional trumpet player with the Benny Goodman Band, and later with CBS television network in New York City. His soaring trumpet solo could be heard on the theme to The Jackie Gleason Show, and on recordings with Frank Sinatra, and many of the iconic performers from the early days of radio and television. My mother, Helen O’Brien had been a singer with Joe Haymes and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. It was only natural that music filled our lives. Fellow trumpeter, Harry James was a close friend and frequent visitor to the Griffin household. The family would gather around a crackling fire while the mysterious light emanating from the Victrola would tantalize us with visions and specters that swayed to the dancing flames while the mesmerizing sounds of Moussorsky, Respeghi, Rimsky Korsakoff, Ella Fitgerald, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Benny Goodman, etc, filled our world with the wondrous elements of melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre.
Christmas Eve was an especially exciting time in our neighborhood of “Shorehaven” when siblings would jostle for their turn at the window to gaze out at the musicians who had gathered in the gently cascading snowfall to play for the children and adults who were anxiously awaiting Santa’s bounty. It wasn’t until many years later that the truth be told, these musicians had been well fortified with hot Swedish Glog and other forms of inducement to brave the cold and to spread “The Christmas Cheer” with the festive and memorable music of the season. Speaking of “Glog” We used to get our gas pumped at the Sinclair station at the top of Bayview Ave…owned by a Big Swede who insisted that my parents share with him a steaming hot cup of Glog in order to better negotiate the ice and snow.
I was seven years old when on Christmas morning, sitting there under the tree was a shiny new trumpet. That was it!…my future was predetermined and I believed that any further academia would be completely unnecessary. Such a pronouncement was not to be ignored. With a stern directive, my father told me to sit down at the desk, grab a pencil and a piece of paper, and to precisely write down his words: “I, Paul Griffin, age seven want to be a professional trumpet player when I grow up, and do take all responsibility for that decision.“ This binding document was placed in a safe deposit box at the local bank and wasn’t to be seen again for fifteen years until the day when I boarded a BOAC airplane destined for London, England and the beginning of a new life as a committed professional musician.
Looking back and considering that I hadn’t already been committed, I feel certain that I drove my siblings to the edge of insanity as I was possessed with a ravenous hunger to listen, over and over and over, to The Haydn Trumpet Concerto before bursting out of the door in time to catch the bus on the way to school. I never quite resolved my issues as to whether I suffered from a seemingly unmitigated IQ, or an apparently un-medicated A.D.D. Music was like Prozac for this hyperactive and demonic child.
THE PROBABILITY OF BEING WATCHED IS DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL TO THE STUPIDITY OF YOUR ACT
We lived on Homewood Drive, just a short distance from the bay and Long Island Sound, so exploring the shores; boating and water skiing filled our days with adventure and left us with plenty of fodder for the nostalgia that would invade our senior years; that is if we managed to survive into adulthood.
The tides would mysteriously come and go, leaving behind an abundance of new and exciting discoveries to be gathered and pondered. On one such hunter/gatherer expedition, the tide had evidently deposited a rather enormous cache of used condoms. Well, having no idea what these fascinating creatures from the deep could possibly be, this little puppy proudly displayed a bucket full of appropriately named, “net fish” to his mother. Observing from a discrete distance, while chortling away in his own demented and adolescent version of Schadenfreude, my older brother, Tom took me aside and gave me the short version of the facts of life. Evidently, a band of Vikings had landed upon our shores and they had mercifully sheathed their spears in order to spare the indigenous population. The concept of contraception was alien to our Irish Catholic, Ozzie & Harriet community. Suddenly, girls became an enigma for us and Kathy, our second baseman grew increasingly impatient at our quizzical appraisals.
Autumn storms were especially bountiful for our Shorehaven tribe. Duck blinds frequently ended up in the marshes and provided us with shelter, warmth and a cozy retreat where we could amaze ourselves with stories of exploration, bravado…and Vikings! Our grand quest for a ‘eureka” experience was barely contained while explosive decompression threatened to overwhelm our existence in one grand mal seizure. Imagining the exotic places that it could take us, we anxiously awaited the incoming tide to float our new found fortress. Huck Finn? Robinson Caruso? We would map out an entirely unique adventure and be back in time for dinner. Our parents would praise our heroic exploits. Not! One such expedition, found my brother, Tom and I venturing out onto a frozen Manhasset bay…him giving us forward momentum with a long pole, while I cleared the ice that impeded our progress. It wasn’t often that our father was home during the day and even less likely that he would be out and about. However, on this particular day of all days, like an apparition, there he was…on the distant and steadily receding shoreline behind us if we would only not see him. “Do you think he’s seen us?” “Is that us he’s yelling at?” “Whose idea was this, anyway?” Encouraging us to come about and return to the inappropriately named Shorehaven, his calm demeanor gave little insight into the fate awaiting us just out of reach. While considering our alternatives we mumbled platitudes to each other like, “maybe he just wants to come for a ride”. “How far is it to Fiji?” We were, of course subsequently grounded.
Winter storms on Long Island could be severe. One particular nor’easter blew in unannounced and with a blizzard firmly embedded. Completely absorbed in my homework, the thrashing trees outside our dining room window were competing for my attention. Suddenly there was a bright flash and a blood curdling roar that shook the entire house and plunged us all into a blinding darkness and a deafening silence. Having been drilled at school in the principles of duck and cover, instinctively, I dove under the table. Convinced that we were under attack, there I remained in spite of my mother’s soothing entreaties that all was safe. I knew better, and I tried to convince her that there was more room under the table if she would like to join me. Finally, I summoned the courage to venture out from my haven and we all gathered together for comfort and enlightenment. As it turned out, with a hail of sparks and a prehistoric-like roar, the transformer just outside our house had objected to winters sudden and icy onslaught. This instilled in me a respectable curiosity about something that could wage such a dynamic demonstration. Never again would I take the simple act of flipping a light switch for granted and it would be months before I summoned the courage to once again plug in my Lionel trains; that task was hence forth delegated to my younger sister, Eileen. Surely, the high voltage Gods would protect one so innocent while I, on the other hand, was certain that should I venture anywhere near an electrical outlet, a single, well guided jolt would jump right out of the socket and instantly vaporize me. From a reasonable distance I would summon my most imploring, but casual voice and say, “Hey sis! You wanna plug in those trains for me while I hang out over here and practice my trumpet for awhile?” Thanks!
A METHOD OF INQUIRY MUST BE BASED ON EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE SUBJECT TO SPECIFIC PRINCIPLES OF INQUIRY
The 1950’s posed many ponderables for young, inquiring minds and I had many unresolved issues to ponder. Fear breeds curiosity which leads to the formulation of a question; hypothesis; prediction, testing and analysis. In order to draw logical conclusions, from which, one would hopefully derive empirical wisdom of the subject matter at hand, it is imperative that one manages to survive to tell about it.
I began to wonder why it was that the power coming out of the wall could kill me while that same power would energize my trains…the tracks upon which I could place my tongue and not be harmed. (I must have still been at the oral fixation stage of my life…which I have yet to outgrow. At least it wasn’t a frozen metal pole.) I began reducing the engines down to their components: motors, brushes, armatures, and rotors. I began building my own motors, solenoids, electromagnets. I became fascinated with magnetic polarity; force fields; attraction and repulsion. I created a primitive electromagnetic projectile launcher and pondered and played around with maglev rails. With a better understanding of conductivity, I strung overhead wires and rewired my rail powered trolley and went on to create proportional servos. I still didn’t fully understand the difference between alternating current and direct current and why DC electricity seemed to be harmless while AC was not. I decided to set up a simple experiment with one wire going directly from the AC source in the wall outlet and directly to a light bulb. The second wire also came directly from the source and to the light bulb. However, I cut the wire in the middle. My developing little brain concluded that the light bulb would provide enough resistance to the electrons in the circuit and that I could actually be the passive switch in the middle and thus complete the circuit. After confirming that the light would go on and off with only a small spark when I brought the two bare wires together, I was ready to take the plunge. I postulated that if I held one bare wire in one hand and the other bare wire in the other hand, well then the electricity would pass harmlessly from one hand to the other hand where it would then proceed along the wire to ultimately energize the light bulb. With the intensity of a coon hound, I focused upon the light bulb and confidently grabbed hold of the first bare wire…so far so good. Still intent on the light bulb and with little trepidation or malice of forethought I grabbed hold of the second bare wire. When I was finally able to let go of the wires and all that had lit up was me, I had learned a valuable lesson. With my hair still smoking, I ascended the stairs to eagerly share my conclusions with my mother. I explained how my hypothesis’ had suffered a major setback. Well, her face said it all: puzzlement, horror, pride, concern, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Subsequently, I was given my first sip of brandy which was my mother’s cure for just about anything, from a bee sting to Ebola virus. And so I learned another valuable lesson…I liked brandy. Rebounding with the ignorance of youth and fortified with the confidence of brandy, and stimulated by my recent encounter with electron migration, I descended back into the bowels of our basement with a new found resolve to never again ignore any of the five steps of the scientific method. This however, was not the only time that a large amount of electricity jumped out and bit me.
HiFi was an emerging technology and it wasn’t too much of a leap for me to want to understand the principles and the functionality of amplification. Traveling into the city by train and heading downtown to Vesey street where there was an abundance of electronics stores, I roamed from store to store and my developing need to understand was fueled by a myriad of potentialities presented in each shop window. Resistors, capacitors, transformers, tubes and mini cathode ray tubes were all fodder for my inquisitive little mind. The idea that with a little input you could get a lot of output just fascinated me. I knew that anything was possible with electronics and that the only limitation was your imagination. I decided that I could satisfy both my love of music and my curiosity about electronic circuitry by building a HiFi sound amplifier. The decision having been made, I was excited by the prospect as I gathered together the necessary components and a schematic diagram and headed for home…and the basement. I was beginning to comprehend that something miraculous would occur in the vacuum space between an anode and a cathode and that the rest of the circuitry was basically a support network for that process. However, the vacuum space between my ears had yet to comprehend that the prerequisite skills required for soldering were an essential component in order to move the project along to a successful conclusion. There was little artistry in my endeavors as I surged ahead in my haste to amaze and befuddle all who would come to see and hear the resounding music that was sure to emanate from the massive fifteen inch speaker that brother Jerry had brought home from college. Some flux here and a blob of lead solder there…ok…so this was not a thing of beauty…but, would it be functional? The moment had arrived and I summoned the courage to plug it into the wall socket. (Where was my little sister when I needed her?) So far, so good. “Nothing” is good, isn’t it? Now, it was time to turn it on. Bang! Flash! Smoke! Uh Oh! Not good! Un plug! Seems that my soldering had bridged some contacts that it shouldn’t have bridged. Ok! Easy fix. However, just to be certain, I left the cover off and placed it in my lap so that I could observe and locate any problems. Plug in and turn ooooooooonnnnn. More smoke…it’s meeeee! More brandy! Eventually, that amplifier provided the Griffin Family with many years of beautiful music and melted vinyls. Pop Griffin didn’t quite understand the concept of not placing vinyl records on exposed “hot” tubes…especially after an evening laced with copious amounts of alcohol. Many of our favorite recordings bore the tell tale “pops” and “clicks” as the needle jumped the canyons where dad had insisted that we repeatedly listen to a particularly interesting few bars of music. His alcohol infused hand would gently guide the needle to the appropriate hovering position and then, like an F 16 lining up for a carrier landing , he would drive the needle down full throttle to a gouging, ear shattering landing. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a tail hook or a flagman to wave him off .
Manhasset was quite a musical community in the fifties, where many of the recording musicians, singers and performers such as Perry Como and Syd Caesar resided. New York City’s major broadcasting networks, CBS, NBC and ABC each had their own stable of musicians…CBS and NBC also having full symphony orchestras lead my such melodious names as Toscanini and Antonini. Many of those New York studio musicians are now worthy footnotes in the musical history of the big bands. Andy Ferretti, Bernie Privin, Carl Poole, Bob Haggart, Billie Roland, Billie Butterfield, Dave Bowman, Yank Lawson, Artie Matterazzie, Johnny Pepper, Dave Kurtzer. Along with their respective families, many of the musicians and performers belonged to the Brookville Country Club where the parents refined their golf game after depositing their children by the pool and in the capable hands of the staff. Falling in July as it does every year, my eighth birthday saw me climbing the high diving board…trumpet in hand and a brand new Captain Video space helmet placed proudly upon my head…a vision straight out of The Christmas Story and one that my therapist insists that I need to talk about. Once in place, I rendered my first public performance of the chromatic scale to rousing cheers and silent jeers. From then on, lifeguard, Eddie and onlookers would eagerly encourage my older brother Jerry, who was teaching young Paul the finer points of breath control in the deep end of the pool while Jerry attempted to silence my screams by holding me under water…all with a Caesar like, “thumbs down” from those sitting around the pool and seeking relief from the amazing torrent of decibels emanating from one so small.
There seemed to be a consensus among my older brothers and they were unified in their strategies to keep my fledgling wings from achieving flight. Tom enjoyed a sadistic joy as he had me stand next to the pine wall in our basement while he traced an outline of my “fat-head” (as he liked to call it) and proceeded to throw darts at it…scoring extra points for a nose. Realizing at an early age that self deprecation goes a long way toward disarming the taunting of an older brother, I took my turn at darting my own image. Our parents, on the other hand were not overly thrilled about this display of sibling rivalry and the associated concentration of dart holes in their newly installed tongue and groove pine wall. Nevertheless, my image was immortalized for the duration of the Griffin family’s residence in Manhasset.
Occasionally, my dad would take me into the city with him where he was working in the television and recording studios. Taking the train from Manhasset and then the subways were naturally a source of great excitement for a young child. The allure of the trestle that spanned the southern end of the bay and then the growing anticipation as the scene outside the window rapidly changed from rural to city. Accelerating toward the tunnel that went under the east river and into Penn station was only a harbinger of what would surely be an adventurous day. Migrating to the very front of the first subway car on our journey “uptown” and peering out of the ship-like port hole, the colored lights and the crossing sets of rails were a stimulating resource for my creative juices and for the Lionel train set awaiting my next onslaught of tinkering back home. Exiting at 50th and Broadway, my little legs were tested as we strode briskly in the direction of Studio 50 where The Jackie Gleason Show and the “The Toast Of The Town” (which morphed into The Ed Sullivan Show) were broadcast live. I always marveled at how many people wanted to stop and talk with my father. Over the years I would come to know that he was a much respected and sought after lead trumpet player and was a major contributor to an era that we know to be the early history of recorded music and television.
I always seemed to receive special treatment in the studio, but felt pressured at attempting to learn all fifty names of the members of the staff and orchestra. The precision and professionalism attacked me from all directions. The microphones and cameras were a direct causeway into the homes of a growing audience with a potential of one hundred and eighty million Americans; together we were venturing toward an exciting future filled with whatever we could imagine. Sure, it was only black and white, but Dick Tracy already had television on his wristwatch so color tv couldn’t be very far off.
The “Control Room” and the Ray Bloch Orchestra competed for my attention…I couldn’t figure where my appetite was best served. Mostly, I liked to stand behind my dad where I could peer over his shoulder at the music, the conductor and the performers. I was amazed at the sight reading abilities of each musician…the precision of so many and the sound of a ten piece brass section seemed to satisfy my every fiber; I only wished that everybody on planet earth could hear exactly as I was, this sound sent from the Gods that no microphone could ever truly capture. Lost in my own little reverie, Judy Garland was appearing on the show and with her was her young daughter, Liza. Well, I was in my usual position behind my dad, as Liza came and stood there with me. I must have been about ten which would have made her about eight. We smiled acknowledgement of each other’s presence and that was about all that our youthful awkwardness could muster. The stage cues were set, Ray Bloch began conducting the orchestra and her mother began to sing. The brass section was laying down a blanket of lush chords and I noted that Liza seemed to “get it.” That sound! It was a privileged time and place to be and we both got it.
When I wasn’t terrorizing the neighborhood, or down the cellar, dabbling with electricity by curiously reducing and rearranging old radios or televisions to their components, or practicing the trumpet, I played baseball. It was, of course, too far to walk up to the school and to the proper diamonds placed there at great expense by the taxpayers. No, we would simply mark out plates on the tarmac in front of our homes and swing for all it was worth. How we never broke any windows I’ll never know. We found some linoleum tiles and we thought how good they would look as bases. Sure enough, I connected with a pitch that would earn me a home run…if I made it around the bases. I can still feel the grin on my face as I was rounding third and the tile suddenly slid out from under me. Bam! I never saw it coming. I guess linoleum tiles on tarmac wasn’t such a good idea after all. Although I had been knocked out cold for several minutes and suffered severe headaches for the next few weeks, nobody worried about a little concussion back in the fifties. All that the guys could tell me about the experience is that they thought I was faking it since I still had a big grin on my face as I lay there.
I was a leftie and I honed my pitching skills by projecting rocks across the bay and listening for the metallic ring of the large oil storage tank on the other side. I started out in left field, but when I consistently bypassed the short stop and threw directly to home plate, I was moved to the pitching position. I was also the “cleanup” batter and could generally be counted upon to round the bases. These days when I swing a bat, (or a fly swatter) I look more like a ballerina doing a complete pirouette and finishing in the dying swan pose. Looking back, I realize that the feel of really connecting bat and ball is much like the feeling of “connecting” body with trumpet…when it’s right, the feeling is a Zen thing.
I was in the seventh grade when the Yankees won the 1956 world series and Don Larson pitched a no hitter. Mrs. Eccles, our teacher knew how important the game was to us and permitted us to listen to the game during class. It was difficult to concentrate on algebra while the geometry of the diamond and the excited voice of Mel Allen were competing for our attention. One young lady became so excited during the game that she rather surreptitiously passed wind, and began to laugh nervously. The more that she laughed, the bolder, more melodious and staccato became her offerings. With cries of “foul” “abandon ship” and “head for the hills” the entire class bolted for the windows leaving the poor young girl horrified and blushing…even Mrs. Eccles was doing her best to keep a straight face while chastising us for inappropriate behavior and then coaxing us back to our desks. She was betrayed by the tears in her eyes. I’ve always felt badly for the young lady and hope that absent the only remediation known to mankind, “Superglue” that life will have similarly afforded her with many opportunities for a robust belly laugh at the gifted offerings of others.
Not being one for displays of fanaticism, I nevertheless had two idols in my life and Mickey Mantle was one of them. The thrill when he would approach the plate…willing him to “hit that sucker” out of the park was barely containable. There was no fist pumping in those days; with deep humility, Mickey would simply take off his cap and bow humbly to the fans. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra came to Manhasset for Mickey’s book signing, and I was right in the front of the line at our local book store on Plandome Road. That book remained on our shelves until the day that my parents moved from Manhasset to Dumont, NJ. I had just celebrated my eighteenth birthday, and enjoyed my first “legal” alcoholic beverage. Three weeks later, we moved from Manhasset, to Dumont, NJ where I once again became under aged since the drinking age in NJ was twenty-one! We were, however, located a mere twenty minutes from the upstate New York line. The clubs and bars of Suffern, NY did a booming business off of underage New Jersey teens. (The stupidity of imaginary lines drawn on a piece of paper were not even a mere hiccup for determined adolescents in search of alcoholic beverages!) At any rate, Mickey Mantle’s autobiography once again found a home on our shelves. <Moved again to Liberty, NY…book was in a box…and then disappeared.>
TRAINS AND BOATS AND PLANES
Manhasset was then and remains to this day a wealthy community. In 1940, my parents purchased a model home on Homewood Drive for which they paid $39,000.00. That was a considerable price for that period of time while a European war was already raging. The same house recently sold in excess of $1,000,000.00. Back in the 1950’s, when young high school girls turned sixteen, many would get a brand new Corvette or the equivalent for arriving at this milestone. The guys were expected to purchase their own “old bangers” and fix them up. And, fix them up they did…bored-out and re-stroked engines; turbo chargers and four barrel carburetors; larger, more robust differentials to engage the greater horse-power; glass pack mufflers, and they would complete the overhaul with an extreme “rake” of the entire chassis thus presenting the vehicle nose down/bottoms up. My brother, Tom bought a 1947 Mercury coup which he completely redesigned with tail lights from an old Hudson. He even had turning indicator lights which were unheard of back then. As I recall, it was mounted on the steering column which it engaged by means of a rubberized “flywheel.” I always enjoyed riding with him to school where all of the kid’s proudly displayed their handy-work with a lap of honor around the parking lot. Arrival time was a pretty noisy affair sounding more like a marina, with a flotilla of large Chris Craft cabin cruisers. You just couldn’t ignore thirty or forty suped-up engines with deep throated “glass-pack” exhausts roaring for attention; each one seeking decibel superiority…not to mention the noxious cloud of carbon monoxide that descended upon participants and observers alike.
Several of my neighborhood friends had boats and it followed that exploring the bay and the nearby Long Island Sound and water skiing were rich and fulfilling activities for the summers of our youth. I was generally good at the mechanicals and electricals and I gained a reputation as “the fixit guy.” My good friend, Pete Higgins who lived just around the corner had a Penyan runabout. When his family went for a cruise to Bermuda, they purchased the supplies and I spent my time fiber glassing the seams of the hull. By the time they returned, I had completed the job and it looked amazingly seaworthy. Never again would we need to caulk, sand, prime and paint. These puppies were ready for a summer of fun. My reward for having completed the job in their absence? I was awarded a day out on the boat with a current girl friend. However, this wasn’t just any young lady; she was kind of special…she was also a good musician. My feelings for her were somewhat elevated to, let’s stick with: “special.” With all of the provisions stowed for an exciting experience where I anticipated opportunities for demonstrating my budding, masculinity, and profound hunter gatherer instincts, we set out from Louie’s marina in Port Washington. It was a perfect summer day and the Long Island Sound and half moon beach were calling. Passing through the channel between the bay and the sound, and with my attention firmly focused upon safe navigation, what with giving right of way to sailboats and turning into or avoiding the wakes of the larger craft that were sharing this beautiful afternoon with us, I began to notice that the boat was becoming sluggish to the helm. A glance back at the motor revealed that beautiful Manhasset bay that had so filled my childhood with immense joy was now seeking to fill our small craft with its abundance and it was insidiously invading from the transom. Having recently learned about Archimedes, I was well aware that we would soon displace Manhasset Bay by an amount diminished by the equivalency of that by which we were losing buoyancy. I went back to confirm my suspicions and sure enough, streaming behind our wake were the telltale strips of fiberglass, dancing playfully in the swells and profoundly demonstrating their mockery of my aforementioned skills and the myriad of skills that would soon be put to the test in carrying us safely back to Louie’s. Presenting a stoic image and exuding a confidence that I didn’t really feel, I assured my most esteemed companion that by turning the boat around and gunning it to full throttle, then surely the water on the inside of the hull would seek to join the rest of the bay on the outside of the hull. Depending on where the leak(s) actually were, the principle was sound but I could have used Archimedes right there in the boat with us for a confirmation of my assumptions. The reality was that the boat had already achieved critical mass and any thoughts of achieving a speed sufficient to cause the boat to plane were quickly dashed. The remainder of our journey back was slow and laborious with her at the helm while I was reduced to humility while bailing like hell.
Although Pete had two brothers and a sister, his mother, (Mrs. Higgins to me) would call upon me to repair electrical appliances around their house. Sitting together around the kitchen table, I would fiddle with whatever needed fixing while she ran a non-stop commentary about how worthless was our gender. Her husband, George (Higgy) was a manager at Lundy’s Restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and was rarely seen at home. We were just approaching our teens when it became clear to me that she really was not very fond of Men and that we were her captive males upon which she could heap ladles full of her grievances for “the sins of the father.” Pete, Bruce and David were her sons, and I was somebody’s son…we were all guilty by association.
When I turned sixteen my father didn’t feel that I was ready for a “learner’s permit”…I wasn’t “applying myself” in school and although I was never in any serious trouble, he was probably erring on the side of caution…and so my right of passage went unheralded. Enter my good friend, Mrs. Higgins whom unbeknownst to me was at war with my father. (Who also just happened to be a Man!) She was the neighborhood authority on child psychology and she was aware of, and strongly disagreed with my father’s assessment of my worthiness for driving privileges. She was a force to be reckoned with and she and my father had previously locked horns about his prohibitions and restrictions on me; especially regarding me going out with her son, Peter on his boat and water skiing, from which I had been strictly forbidden. With all of my friends out boating and water skiing, I was left to my own devices…problem was…I didn’t own any devices.
One day, while I was in the midst of painting her house, Mrs. Higgins called me down from the ladder and commanded me to follow her. (And I do mean, “command” in the most authoritative of vernaculars.) She had a real Irish temper and I was worried; I wondered where I had messed up. She gave me a rag and told me to go into her kitchen and wash my hands with turpentine followed by soap and water. That done and passing her rigorous inspection, she led me to her 1956 Ford Thunderbird with the detachable top. With a pronouncement of, “don’t tell your father!” she opened the driver’s door and told me to “get in” as she handed me the keys. She coached me through my first driving experience. When we returned, all she could say was, “MEN!” which meant that I had passed her test and was now and forever more to be objectified as one of “them.” Like the matriarchal society of an elephant herd, I was the adolescent male whose time had come and I was to be cast out with the other migrating bulls.
As I was approaching the completion of painting her house, and all that remained was the final trim and touchups, I gave her good reason to cast me out. She had gone out on an errand and had asked me to answer her phone if it rang while she was gone. I was up at the top of the ladder doing the black trim when the telephone’s insistent ring caught my attention. I came running down the ladder when my leg slipped in between the rungs. Well, the bucket of black paint and I raced to the bottom and I don’t know which landed first; me or the bucket which splattered and rapidly spread to every conceivable outpost of her recently installed blue slate patio. Fortunately, I was personally spared the splattering part although a few more bumps, scrapes and contusions, or maybe a broken bone protruding through my trousers might have evoked some modicum of sympathy in the upcoming confrontation with Mrs. Higgins. Suddenly, there she was! And there I was…mouth half open in anticipation of some, yet unthought-of enlightened utterance. Failing to find the connection between brain and mouth, there we both stood…together…surveying her beautiful blue slate patio now covered in black, oil paint. Eyes darting back and forth, seeking, appealing and avoiding, I hoped to see a glimmer of the compassionate matriarch that I had always known and who recently taught me how to drive a car. Her car. But, alas…that is not the woman who was standing before me. Her transformation was like a scene out of the movie, “Men In Black” and the splattering of black paint only served to enhance the veil of darkness that was descending around us. The metamorphosis was mesmerizing and I was powerless to move. Her magnificent mane of flaming red hair was on fire, as were her icy blue eyes. I never would have believed that even her creamy white Irish complexion could have altered so quickly. What now confronted me was a bonafied, fire breathing dragon from the depths of hell, and I was about to be torn apart and fed to her young. Where were Pete and Bruce anyway? Her complexion was now as red as her hair and a demonic glow began to emanate from her eyes. I knew that I needed to map out a hasty exit strategy. She had no sympathy for my throbbing head which had impacted a close second behind the can of paint…nor did she even venture a cursory examination of my lacerated leg that had become entangled in the rungs of the ladder. In my defense, and confounding her with the confounding logic of a teenager, I laid full blame squarely on the telephone for ringing so insistently and which she never should have asked me to answer…then I beat an abrupt and hasty retreat. She was not to be denied the rage that was building from within and my newly acquired status as outcast male earned me a full accounting…”MEN!” She bellowed after my rapidly retreating figure. From that day hence I would continue to pay the price for the entire male gender.
I was fortunate to count as a friend, a brilliant young pianist named Francois Joel Thiollier who accompanied me when I performed the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. “Joel” practiced at least five hours a day and there was never any doubt that he would one day enjoy international acclaim. Carrying my trumpet and books for practice, I would walk from my home in Shorehaven to Munsey Park where Joel lived.
One performance came on the heels of our high school soccer team winning an important game and the need to celebrate by consuming copious amounts of ale. Well, the trumpet shows no mercy to those who would abuse alcohol and I can recall my mother smiling knowingly as she drove me to my performance venue and my just rewards. She knew that her son was about to learn a harsh lesson; one that he would hopefully remember.
I studied trumpet performance with: my father, Chris Griffin, (Lead Trumpet, CBS Staff Orchestra) Also with Bill Clark (Lead Trumpet, NBC Staff Orchestra) Carl Poole (Lead Trumpet, NBC Staff Orchestra) Murray Karpilovsky (Principal Trumpet with the Symphony Of The Air under Arturo Toscanini)
After studying mostly classical trumpet and performing many of the baroque concertos, Maynard Ferguson became a major influence for me, altering the direction in which I was heading as a classical trumpet player. Maynard certainly inspired many generations of young musicians. Remembering the first time I ever heard one of his recordings; (Shorty Rodgers-“Infinity Promenade” 2:25 into the piece.) I was blown away! I was just fourteen, and had arrived at a pivotal stage in my own developing trumpet style. I wasn’t practicing nearly enough and my dad was threatening to pull the private lessons. I had been studying primarily classical music up to that point. Maynard inspired the jazz side of my development, and an upper register that I’m proud to say provided me with many years of pissing-off just about everybody within ear shot, including a pretty grumpy Doberman down the road, and yet I still managed to find gainful employment in the studios of Europe, South Africa, and the USA, as a “high note specialist.”
When I was fourteen, many of my friends were attending CW Post College. Due to my advanced performance abilities, they would take me along to some of the clubs where Maynard was performing. It was at one of these where a waitress who was taking the order for the table, asked me what I would like to drink. Figuring that I would see how far I could push this, I knew that I needed to order something that would have a ring of confidence; that would demonstrate a maturity beyond my chronological years. And so, as Maynard launched into his breathtaking cadenza on “Ole’,” I launched into my first breathtaking extra dry martini, stirred not shaken, straight-up, with an olive! Well, after hearing, “Got The Spirit” “Three More Foxes” and “One More For The Road” and consuming four martinis, I was sneaking in the door late that night and feeling very much younger, and uniquely vulnerable as my alcohol induced bravado abandoned me. The next day, my mother asked where I had been. I never held back. Mothers weren’t to be trifled with in the fifties. Besides, my mom was cool! Just how cool, I was about to find out. How could I not share with her the excitement that I had so recently experienced in the presence of Maynard Ferguson! Proudly, I confessed everything! Ignoring the lingering bass drum doing an encore performance in my head, and the existential conflict taking place somewhere between my stomach and the great divide while threatening to redecorate our kitchen, I told my mother all about Maynard’s prowess on the trumpet, french horn and baritone horn. She seemed to share my enthusiasm, and asked what I had ordered to drink. When I confidently told her, “an extra dry martini, stirred not shaken, straight-up, with an olive!” she replied “good choice;” “let’s you and I go for a drink!” Well! Timing is everything. Didn’t that just shake my little world! “My mom and I. How cool is that?” When we walked into Gino’s on Plandome Road, (as in the book, “The Tender Bar” by J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer) the bartender whom I barely recognized from a previous “drinking encounter” of the “under-aged kind” asked, “what can I get you?” Well, mom ordered a rum and coke, and then proceeded to introduce me as “her baby boy” who would from thence on, be having coke au noir! With a knowing look, and a firm nod, that was the last time I ever got served there. But, not the last time I saw Maynard Ferguson. Not by a long shot!
Maynard is fondly remembered not only by his alumni, but by all who were privileged to have heard and recognized something very special. He was one of a kind! He didn’t just push the envelope, he blew right past it with a singularity. Yes, there have been others who have approached his abilities, but never with the raw excitement, I believe may never again be explored.
Sadly, with the passing of Maynard, I’m reminded that the trumpet appears to be nearing the end of its unique reign in history. Brilliant trumpet players abound, yet the instrument by which Kings were heralded, regrettably may soon be relegated to museums and memories along with the Serpentine. We, who have pressed cold steel to our warm, sensuous lips are a fraternity of the knowing. The addiction of an endorphin rush from the unique combination of physicality, and musicality is difficult to surrender…as will be the memory of Maynard Ferguson.”
Brothers are a unique relationship. Carrying similar dna code they are singularly bonded, and yet competing for personal identity and parental attention. It’s all about survival. Parents are designed to respond to the beak within the nest that is thrust skyward. Jerry’s was the first beak to emerge and he trained our parents well, thus preparing them for the five hatchlings that were yet to follow. He was the Buck Rodgers, Ming The Merciless, and the Captain Kirk of our Griffin Family Starship Enterprise.
I learned many lessons from our elder sibling. As a four year old, I recall how he passed me the reigns of our 80 pound Irish Setter Casey, and watched as I was dragged over the horizon in a hail of dust. To Jerry’s dismay, I found my way home but, Casey remains missing to this day.
Jerry’s first car was an eggshell blue, 1950 Ford. He was proud of that car…as he was when he bought his brand new 1960 Corvair Monza. Jerry began taking the train to work from our home in Manhasset to NYC where he was working at the Fulton Fish Market. (Later, he would graduate from Gettysburg University and become a director of the CBS morning news program, Good Morning America.) One day, with nobody else home but sixteen year old Paul looking pensively out the front window at what I believed was the coolest car of its day…well…let’s just say that temptation and an under developed cerebral cortex led me to try out my “four on the floor” skills. In ever increasing increments…slowly, very slowly…just a few feet up the road, and… “Aw what the Hell, let’s see what’s going on up in Strathmore!” I negotiated the back roads without a problem until I pulled up to a stop sign facing an imposing steep hill. Let’s see now… Ease the clutch out. Slowly…slowly…stalled! OK! Look to my left. Shift to neutral…turn the ignition…shift…stalled. Damn! Look to my right…someone cutting a lawn. Oh well! Neutral…ignition…shift…stall. Look to right. Guy mowing lawn looks familiar. Oh S–t! It’s my brother Tom! Has he seen me or is he deliberately not seeing me? Somehow, I got up that hill in fourth gear!
Tom wasn’t spared the consequences of my post pubescent toxic levels of testosterone when I asked to borrow his 1954 Oldsmobile. Raging hormones barely in check and seeking an amorous adventure of the indifferent kind, my girl friend du jour and I headed for the back roads of Sparkhill, NY. Spotting a dirt road and feeling an ill advised sense of adventurism competing with other more urgent and compelling factors, (at least that’s what we called it back then) and so we made a fateful decision that ended in a costly tow from a long and muddy road. A Beatles song that has since come to haunt me. Refusing to let it dampen our ardor and making the best of a bad situation, there we sat in the middle of a deep, muddy puddle oblivious to our impending predicament. Midnight rolled around and we stopped rolling around. Sanity and common sense returned as our blood flow ebbed and returned from points afar and restored vital nutrients to our still developing brains. We soon realized that a long hike through the woods and down the mountain was the only possible remedy. Having no money to pay for the tow, I left the only thing that I had in my possession of any value as collateral until I could return with the fee …Tom’s tools. I got home at around five in the morning and Tom was comfortably asleep in the bedroom that we shared. Debating whether to awaken the sleeping lion, the decision was rendered moot when I stubbed my toe on the caster wheels of my bed. Hopping around with utterances that would have more appropriately belonged to one suffering from Tourettes Syndrome, Tom was awakened and in a surprisingly good place as he observed my discomfort. Considering what I was about to tell him, my current pain causing him such pleasure wasn’t the worst way to break the ice. Between expletives, I explained my dilemma: “your tools, (ouch! Shit!) are currently located, (sonofabitch!) approximately thirty miles north in some upstate garage, (Godamit!) and I had no money to get them back.” (fuck me pink!) This now became his dilemma. Somewhere between his waning amusement at my trepidacious quick step, bemusement at my poor choice of romantic settings, and no amusement at all at leaving his tools, he advised me that he always kept money in the glove compartment for just such occasions. Well, I drove back to Nyack, NY where I retrieved Tom’s tools which he needed right away for his job as an airline mechanic. Our father, who art upstairs taking it all in, rescinded all car privileges that I may have enjoyed and so I was reduced once again to the bipedal creature that I am. The young lady had also been grounded and we drifted apart. The Lesson? Stick to the drive-in movie theaters with the rest of the herd.
A few short years later Karma had its own fun with me when I bought my own first car…a 1963 Corvair Monza Spider. Yep! Three clutches before I finally unloaded it. Either that car sucked or I was the world’s worst at “four on the floor.” In my defense and years in between, I did manage to go one hundred and fifty thousand miles on the original clutch before I blew up the engine doing 120 mph on the M1 in Yorkshire, England.
TO THE MEMORY OF MY BROTHER, GERALD G GRIFFIN: 1937-2012
I’ve often thought of our lives here on this earth and in this dimension as the crystal surface of a pool in a gentle rain. Refreshing! Replenishing! Each drop announcing its own timely arrival on the surface with playful, ever widening and interconnecting circles. Mirror like, the reflection evolves into a constantly morphing work of art. A kaleidoscope of patterns, a euphoric combination of smells and a symphony of sounds. Sometimes consonant, and sometimes dissonant, but always orchestrating into a mesmerizing tapestry of colors and patterns with a delicious anticipation of more to come.
Occasionally there comes a drop that is larger, or better defined and distinctly more “rotund” than its fellow travelers. It joyfully cannonballs into the deep end of this pool of humanity, throwing out a drenching spay and leaving its own unique signature. Creating a rhythmic and dynamic swell that will not be ignored, it gathers momentum, engulfing its neighbors and sending them undulating into triumphant crests and exhilarating troughs and colliding with one another.
Eventually, the ripples subside, and equanimity returns to the pool. But, the pool has been altered. It is enhanced, fuller and more complete. The reflection is clear…”Jolly Jerry” was this unique, and colorful cannonball.
Your Loving and Grateful Brother,