A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Princess Bride

Once upon a time, there was a girl in Pinole named Caroline McCaskey.
Everyone loved her because she was smart and spunky and goodhearted and levelheaded and beautiful - sort of like Elizabeth Bennett in "Pride and Prejudice."
At an early age she discovered that she had not only a great talent but also a great passion for music. Whatever instrument she picked up, she quickly became so good at it that she was soon giving concerts and giving lessons to other people.
She's a fabulous fiddler and a virtuoso violinist. (The difference, she once explained to me, is that fiddle music is meant to be danced to and violin music is meant to be listened to.)
She's also great on the viola, piano and - believe it or not - musical saw. In fact, she's one of the best musical saw players in the world, having won first place at the International Musical Saw Festival at Roaring Camp in 2008.
I'm not making any of this up. Just Google her, and you can watch videos of her playing all these instruments, including the musical saw.
But more than her musicianship, it's her qualities as a person that makes everyone adore her. You can't help being drawn to her open heart and an endearing combination of sweetness and strength.
Naturally, someone who reminds you of Elizabeth Bennett was bound to meet her Mr. D'Arcy, and that's exactly what Caroline did.
When she went away to college, she met a tall, blond and handsome flute player/composer named Cole Ingraham. And they've been making sweet music together ever since.
She decided he was The One when she got really sick one day from an intense allergic reaction. Without hesitating, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her down four flights of stairs and all the way across campus to the infirmary. Then he waited on her hand and foot until she got well.
The guy may look like Apollo, but he acts like a mensch!
Now they're moving to Colorado, where they'll begin master's and doctoral programs in music.
But there was last thing to do before they go. On July 3 they tied the knot in a simple but moving Buddhist wedding ceremony at the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley.
Caroline looked positively regal, and Cole looked like Central Casting's idea of Prince Charming - which, of course, he is.
Not surprisingly, given their musical connections, the music was great - both the gamelan players during the ceremony and The Hot Club of San Francisco, which served up some very swinging standards during the reception.
The toasts were appropriately corny but heartfelt, and the bride and groom had the good taste not to shmoosh wedding cake in each other's face.
It was one of the loveliest weddings I've been to in a long time. At most weddings, half the people in the audience are mentally calculating how long they think the marriage will last.
But not at this one. Caroline and Cole are such great young people, and they're so obviously in love, it gives you hope for the future.
It wasn't a teenage wedding, but the old folks wished them well. You could tell Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle.
C'est la vie. May they live happily ever after.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Musical Miracle

Every year at this time I tell you about the Midsummer Mozart Festival, for two reasons:
First, there's nothing like Mozart. His music is so beautiful, it warms your heart and soul.
And second, if you want to hear Mozart you can't do better than the Midsummer Mozart Festival. The musicians are some of the finest in the world, let alone the Bay Area.
But this year there's an added reason: The festival will showcase 14-year-old piano sensation Audrey Vardanega, a student at College Prep in Oakland.
I saw Audrey perform last year, playing the same piece she'll play at the festival - Mozart's exhilarating Piano Concerto No. 21 in C.
It reminded me of Ken Burns' "Jazz" series on PBS, when trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said about Count Basie, "When Basie sat down to play, he'd be swinging before he played the first note."
That's Audrey, too. Her solo didn't come until about seven or eight minutes into the concerto; but instead of sitting around waiting for her turn, she was totally into the music.
She and the music were one. It went way beyond her flawless technique. She was feeling the music down to the bottom of her soul, and it all came pouring out through her fingertips. It was one of the most exhilarating musical experiences I have ever had.
And I'm not the only one who feels this way.
"Her age has nothing to do with it," says Maestro George Cleve, the festival's founder and artistic director. "You're lucky to find that kind of ability at any age. She has an endless capacity to move me musically. It's a privilege to work with her."
And get this: She's a brilliant violinist and composer, too! She has composed ballets, string trios, sonatas, pop songs and a musical version of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Emperor's New Clothes."
And as if that weren't enough, she's also a gifted actress who, despite her tender age, has already received raves from the critics for her appearances with ACT in San Francisco.
But the best part is that none of this has gone to her head.
"She is totally sweet and full of fun, with no pretension," says ACT's Craig Slaight, who directed her in a Noel Coward play last year. "Everybody in the company loves her."
Murray Cohen, the Head of School at College Prep, concurs.
"Her teachers and fellow students love her. She is a wonderful, delightful, very deep person with a remarkable degree of thoughtfulness on any subject."
With so many different talents, Audrey is being pulled in all directions. Professional musicians want her to concentrate on music, and theater people want her to concentrate on acting. But she's resisting the pressures.
In fact, most of her friends don't even know about her artistic life, and that's just the way she likes it.
"It's great to be judged by your personality, not how people think you play the piano," she explains.
Audrey will appear with the Midsummer Mozart Festival July 15 in Santa Clara, July 16 in San Francisco, July 17 in Sonoma and July 18 in Berkeley.
There will be a second series of concerts the following week in San Jose, San Francisco, Sonoma and Berkeley, featuring a pianist whom Audrey reveres, the beloved Seymour Lipkin, playing two highly contrasting piano concerti.
Call 1-800-838-3006 or visit midsummermozart.org for tickets and details.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bless 'Em All

(Above: The American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer, above Omaha Beach. A shorter version of this story appears in the current issue of the California alumni magazine.)

Rosamond Castle '43 remembers Dec. 7, 1941, like it was yesterday.
"I was walking through Sather Gate toward Wheeler Hall, and I saw people huddling around, staring at newspapers. By the time I got to Doe Library I heard something about Pearl Harbor. Then inside the library everyone was talking about what had happened."
The news was so incredible, Catherine "Cappy" Vail Bridge '42 didn't believe it at first.
"I thought it was a hoax, like Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' broadcast a few months before."
So began America's entry into World War II, which ended 65 years ago this summer. To celebrate the end of that terrible war, we talked with some of the Golden Bears who lived through it.
The days after Pearl Harbor were a mix of uncertainty and fear.
"It was the middle of finals," says Jean Heying Rusmore '42. "We didn't have blackout curtains yet, so we couldn't study in our rooms because you couldn't have any light showing outside. So we sat on the floor in the hallways and studied there, instead."
"The great fear was for the young men of our class," adds Rosamond. "The young man I was dating invited me to the Class of '42 graduation ball at the Palace Hotel, even though we were both Class of '43, because he knew he probably wouldn't make it to our real graduation in 1943. And he was not alone."
It didn't take long for tragedy to strike home. In April 1942, Ed Tackle '41, who had been editor of the Daily Cal, was killed on the infamous Bataan Death March.
Four months later, Rosamond's beloved older brother, Gordon Craig, was killed off Guadalcanal when an enemy bomb blew apart the bridge of his ship, right were he was stationed.
"My last image of him was the day he went away, when he turned and saluted me and my mother at the door," she says. "I still miss him every day."
Jean Marchant '45 adds, "Our class had a flag made, and we hung it from the Campanile. Every time we got word that someone from Cal had been killed, we added another star."
A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, tragedy struck the campus in a different way.
"One day, my best friend, Grace Imamoto, who was also Class of '42, asked me if I would keep her tennis racket for her," says Jean Heying Rusmore '42. "I didn't know what she was talking about. I said, 'Grace, don't you like to play tennis anymore?' And she said, 'Jean, I have to go away.'"
Grace and all the other Japanese-American students were sent to detention camps for the duration of the war.
"We wanted to help them," says Clavel Fender '43. "The day before they were taken away, we held a tea party for them, with everyone dressed in pastel evening gowns. How innocent we were!"
As the men went off to war, the women threw themselves into supporting the home front.
"We would pick tomatoes or wrap bandages or make Bundles for Britain," says Jean Marchant '42. "Whatever we could do to help."
"There was such a shortage of men on campus, many of us sorority girls used to go to the USO in downtown Berkeley," adds Gwyneth Caster Page '45. "I asked a Marine captain to escort me to the senior ball. I went out and bought a beautiful black taffeta-and-lace formal and little pearl earrings. I thought I looked very chic. The doorbell rang, and there was my date in full dress Marine uniform. He was prettier than I was!"
Many of the younger faculty also went off to war, which meant the remaining undergrads had the cream of the crop as their professors.
"We had all the big guns," says Margaret Cooney Walton '47. "Glenn Seaborg was my section leader in chem!"
Army Capt. Charlie Fender '41 and his wife, Clavel '43, wrote each other every single day of the war, without fail. Whenever his outfit liberated a new city, Charlie would buy a little charm and send it to Clavel, who put them all on a bracelet that remains her most treasured possession.
Charlie was the military governor of the devastated town of Cerignola, Italy, where he rebuilt the social infrastructure from the ground up, establishing a new judicial system, schools, food supplies, and fire and police protection.
"Every day was a lot of fun because I was being useful," he says. And the locals really appreciated it.
"Twenty-seven years later he took me back," says Clavel. "When we checked into the hotel, the man behind the desk took one look at Charlie and said, "I remember you!" He whisked us to the city hall and shouted to the chief of police, 'Get out of that chair! The governor's here!' You can imagine how that impressed me."
Gordon Binder '40 was an Army field surgeon in Europe, operating under enemy fire only a few hundred yards behind the front lines.
"We didn't have an operating room, not even a tent. Just a field somewhere where we'd put up a sign saying, 'Battalion Aid Station.' We'd just park there and receive the casualties."
Many of the casualties were beyond saving. The best he could do was shoot them full of morphine to ease their agony.
"Nobody can imagine how awful it was. It was just horrible. You assumed you weren't going to make it. You knew you were going to get killed. It was just a question of when."
Bob Breuer '43 served on the U.S.S. Wichita, a heavy cruiser in the Pacific. At 22, he was the old man of the group of 18 and 19 year olds whom he supervised.
"We were like family, and I was their uncle. One day, two of them were killed and several others badly wounded by friendly fire from one of our own ships. I just sat down and cried like a baby."
Chuck Auerbach '42 fought with Patton's Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge.
"Some of the things George C. Scott said in the movie I heard Patton say in real life. Unlike Scott, his voice was high and squeaky, but the pearl-handled revolvers were real. He'd race around in a jeep with a machine gun mounted on it, and he really tore down the road. I said to one of my buddies, 'That man's going to die in an automobile accident,' which is exactly what happened."
Not all the heroes were men. Catherine "Cappy" Bridge '42 was a member of the Women Air Service Pilots, or WASPs. Their job was to ferry fighters and bombers from the factory to the airfields, freeing up male pilots for the actual fighting.
"Gosh, it was fun! We just loved it. But it was still dangerous. Thirty-eight of our girls were killed on the job - mostly accidents, not pilot error. One of us would take the body home to her parents, and we would pass the hat among ourselves to cover the expenses."
There weren't many happy days in the war, but one of them was Aug. 25, 1944, the day Paris was liberated.
We've all seen the pictures of ecstatic Parisians swarming over the American tanks, showering the G.I.s with flowers and kisses.
One of the people in that crowd was Tito Moruza '43, who had already been in Paris for three weeks, waiting for the troops to arrive. Tito was an American special agent on a secret mission: As soon as the city was liberated, he was to make his way to Gestapo headquarters and seize all the documents so they could be used in war crimes trials after the war. Which he did.
Tito had landed in France on the morning of D-Day with the 82nd Airborne. Their canvas-and-plywood glider was ripped open by one of "Rommel's Asparagus" - wooden logs driven into fields along the Normandy coast. The three soldiers sitting next to Tito were mortally wounded.
"The youngest, who was only 18, cried for his mama. The second called for the medics, and the third cussed. That was when I lost my religion. I still haven't gotten it back."
While the others were fighting, Tito's job was to contact the French Resistance so they could smuggle him into Paris. He narrowly escaped capture several times, thanks to a heroic couple named Paul and Marcelle Dufour, who operated a safe house for Resistance fighters and escaping American prisoners of war. After the war, he named his first two children after them.
To this day, Tito refuses to watch a war movie. But he does have one happy memory of the war.
"My greatest blessing was that I never had to kill anybody. I'm not belittling those who did; that was their job. I was just lucky."
The war finally ended on Aug. 14, 1945. Jay Jacobus '43 heard the news as his ship was headed from San Francisco to the Pacific for the expected invasion of Japan.
"We all shouted, 'Turn the ship around!' So the ship made a left turn and headed for the Philippines, instead."
Gwyneth Page Caster '45 heard the news when she was in Cowell Hospital with a raging case of mono.
"Somebody sneaked me a bottle of something alcoholic to celebrate," she says. "It made me sick as a dog."
They have been called The Greatest Generation, a term that makes them distinctly uncomfortable.
"It bothers me a lot," says Dave Stewart '43. "I'm no hero. I just did my duty, like thousands of others. The real heroes are the guys who didn't come back."
Dave is being modest. He was awarded the Bronze Star, two combat medals and two Purple Hearts, the second for wounds suffered when he was hit by a German Panzerfaust anti-tank grenade.
"But I still have all my body parts," he says. "So I got out of it lucky."
But the last word belongs to Tom Mulcahy '43, who served on a Navy tanker in the Pacific.
"My two best friends were killed in the war," he says. "One was my best friend from high school, Danny Hurst. The other was Norm Hennessey, whom I rowed with on the Cal crew. I had a chance to get married to the greatest girl in the world, have kids and grandkids, and have a full life. They didn't."