Thursday, April 27, 2006
A Reunion of Another Kind
Growing up in Salt Lake City, especially growing up Jewish (albeit as a Reform Jew, not, as Iris would tell you, a Real Jew like they had on the east coast) brought with it a few issues which may not have been duplicated in every other venue habituated by migrant European Jews. My great grandfather left Russia in about 1888, with his wife and son (my grandfather), got as far as Denver, where he hoped to be introduced to someone who could give him a job. As most arriving immigrants did, they went to a place where they knew someone from the old country. Nathan Rosenblatt got as far as Denver, but found no work. Hearing that there was plenty of work in the Salt Lake valley he took a train, and hoped to find a job there. But on arriving he fell ill, and spent several weeks at a Greek owned rooming house where he finally recuperated. But, now in debt, and getting desperate, he found a chance with a Sam Auerbach, a Jewish merchant who gave him a wagon of goods, and sent him off to sell them at the big copper mine south of town in Bingham. Ten days later he returned, everything sold, the wagon empty. Auerbach looked at the empty wagon and railed at him “what were you thinking?” Taken aback Nathan said “But Mr. Auerbach, I sold everything you gave me!” “Yes,” said Auerbach, but you came back empty!” And thus was born the spirit of a junk man. Nathan sent for his family, made Salt Lake his home, and went, successfully into the junk business. There was always something to ‘bring back’ as well as sell, and soon the family flourished. Eventually they owned a steel mill, which after the end of World War I, and the loss of some major contracts, left them in difficult straits. At that point, family legend holds, Nathan upon realizing the state of the family business uttered what has become the quintessential spirit of our family:” You know this is a great country. I came here with nothing thirty years ago, and today I owe a million dollars!” The family recovered and eventually created EIMCO, a manufacturer of mining machinery. Two generations on, the family is long out of that business but what came with it in those years was a sense of adventure and an understanding that much was possible, indeed, much was expected of us.
It was always assumed that we kids (my older brother, and younger sister and I) would “go away” to college. Where exactly was left open, but there was no doubt that higher education at some wonderful school was expected. My brother Tom opted for Williams in the east. And later my sister Lisa eventually followed in my mother’s footsteps to Stanford, a place she so liked, that she has never moved away from there. I was quite sure by my junior year of high school that whatever else happened, I wanted to be a photographer. Very quickly I had begun selling pictures of high school basketball games to the Salt Lake Tribune, occasionally garnering a published picture AND five bucks for my handiwork. Nothing was more fun. But part of my formation, even in high school, had to do with understanding what the world would have to offer after we left. Math, science, both Advanced Placement, were obvious choices. But in my Junior year, I had the good fortune to sign up for French 2 and enter the teaching world of a vivacious and bouncy little woman whose enthusiasm would mark me forever. Eleanor Onyon was one of those teachers (I had been lucky enough to have several great teachers at Olympus High School) whose hour per day in class was absolutely transforming. She had learned French in Grenoble, and enough Russian along the way to teach both language classes, but it was in French where I was able to try and expand my very basic knowledge of the Gallic tongue. She was enlightening, but never threatening, someone whose boundless energy was so effusive that even if you spoke French like Mr. Ed, you quite enjoyed the effort. I suppose that by graduation I wasn’t all that far along in French but with a year in college, and later on as I traveled the world, it became something that I was completely comfortable in. In Vietnam, anyone over 40 would have a greater chance of speaking French than English, and paying my monthly apartment rent was always a little adventure in French as a Business language. Later on, in the mid 70s after I started working for Gamma, the French photo agency, my ability to speak and read the language really jelled. I could not only converse but make the same kind of terrible jokes that I do in English. Some of them are even appreciated! Not many, but some. And last year in Perpignan, I gave a 45 minute press conference the whole of which was in remarkably non-stumbling French. But more important than that, I think was the understanding that a language, any language is not only a key to a new place, but is essentially a way of opening your heart and mind to the world. There is nothing like conversation to let you connect and get beyond the suspicions of non communication. More than money and riches (but not, perhaps a villa in Tuscany), I think if I could win my personal Lotto, and just HAVE something, it would be the ability to speak in another half dozen languages. There are few things more fun than wandering into a small café in a place you have never been, and ordering without the waiter having to lower himself to English. Ok, you might say that would be a stupid way of spending the wishes from the Genie. But language and what it conveys is, for me, the greatest gift you can own.
This week, teaching in Jackson, Wyoming, I had that reunion of another sort. Having wondered for years what had become of Miss Onyon, I yahoo’d and googled for an hour, and found, via her brother in Utah, that she was living in Jackson. Ed Riddell, a wonderful nature photographer in Jackson, knew her, knew that she had sold her health food store, and was now working with the Post office in nearby Wilson. Damn, I thought, as he and I walked into the theater. It was Monday night, the night I did a one hour presentation of my photographs, and I had neglected in the rush of the workshop to think to invite her to the show. But as I walked in, I turned, and there she was, sitting near the back, and except for her sandy hair now silver, was unchanged in these 42 years. We had a hug and shared this moment of re connection. She had been in the Peace Corps right after my class graduated in 1964. Moved by Kennedy’s assassination, she felt it was her duty to do something for the country and left for Nepal for two years. Later, she moved back to Wyoming, and has been here ever since. We enjoyed the quick recounting of some of the students we both remembered, and the mere unlikeliness of this little reunion. In the opening of my talk I tipped my hat to her, thanking her for having helped at least one of her students to feel the desire to make travel and language one of the cornerstones of life. I’d like to think that though we may not, as Blanche Dubois did, rely on the kindness of strangers, when your life can be marked by a teacher, it is a gift indeed. We're just sayin...