A Once Upon A Time America
The Greatest Generation Survivors
A Tribute to Merritt Klump
A once upon a time America I enjoyed was rich with people like Merritt Klump, the type of folks who created the mid-Twentieth Century America, idealistic and brief though it was.
You don't remember Mr. Klump? Hard to forget a name like that. I knew him over forty years ago, and he's still vivid in my mind. Oh, and the reason I call him Mr . Klump–he was my high school principal. Well, one of them. The other one, the one at the school where I dropped out the first time? Gone from memory. Probably younger.
Who was Merritt Klump?
When you met him and especially if you were a rebellious, independent and smart ass kid like me, you'd probably have concluded that he was a little goofy. On our senior class picnic, a first year teacher who volunteered to be one of our chaperones told my girlfriend and me about her first meeting with Mr. Klump, the summer before.
"I was nervous," she said, "coming to talk to my new boss at my new job. I'm walking down the hall, and here comes this little man, very distracted, looking side to side. He had several handwritten reminders–you know, those pink While You Were Out notes–paper clipped to his tie. That was Mr. Klump."
"Was he scratching himself?""
"Not then," she chuckled.
Mr. Klump's nickname was "Scratch," among the students and, maybe, among the faculty. He had a well-known habit of absentmindedly scratching himself intimately when walking down a public corridor.
A kick to us kids, but he probably hadn't the available bandwidth... Wait, we didn't even have bandwidth in the Sixties... he was too preoccupied to attend to his itch mindfully.
Too Preoccupied In The Sixties?
Our little town, Windsor, was tucked into a gap along the Susquehanna River, almost two-hundred miles northwest of New York City. Heavy traffic on Route 17 whizzed by. Few travelers stopped. In many ways, Windsor, with it's quaint town square and small business section of forgettable shops, had missed the American post war boom, remaining pretty much the same as it had been twenty years before when World War II ended. Yet, in those years, the post war generation, the group Tom Brokaw famously named "The Greatest Generation," reinvented America as probably the most productive and powerful culture ever to grace the face of the Earth.
An industrial economy boomed. American workers' production dwarfed every other country's. We lent a hand in reconstruction of war ravaged Europe. We set up systems for higher education that would make us the most well-informed, the land where the best and brightest wanted to migrate for the unparalleled opportunities.
We've mostly forgotten now, but you can check the records. The books we were handed for study in the Sixties told the story. The United States led the world in nearly everything that mattered. We were proud and, as a nation and a culture, young.
I've picked Mr. Klump as my shining, shambling example of the average exceptional Joes who built that country, an amazing place soon to be trampled, leaving little behind.
Merritt Klump, the Short Version
Mr. Klump was our high school principal. He was legendary, and many stories abounded, each an example of his simple decency and kindness, although it's unlikely many of our teenage recorders realized that.
A friend told us about being caught playing hooky, one too many times. In our less managed childhoods, skipping school didn't sound the alarms it would now. Any healthy kid who thought he could get away with it did. That's what discipline was for, learning to live by rules that didn't come naturally. Junior (real name), a wisecracking guy to start with, was called into Mr. Klump's office for another lecture. Mr. Klump was so frustrated with the obvious limits of persuasion, he suddenly threw his pen onto his desk. Then, he stared at the multiple pieces in horror. "Now, see what you've done. You made me break my favorite pen!"
Does anyone have a favorite pen anymore? Would any child now find this incident touching? Probably not. But I do. I still do. The emotional connection to little things is gone from our lives and so is simplicity.
Later, after my friend Jon and I, frustrated with girl problems and another Northeast winter, ran off to California in the middle of a school year. Six weeks later, we returned and had the mandatory interview in Mr. Klump's office. Mr. Klump confided, behind closed doors, that he might have done the same thing at our age in the same situation. He actually seemed envious.
"And, I'll take care of Margie," he volunteered, a twinkle in his eye. "That wasn't a very nice note you sent," he concluded, referring to the overtly obscene message we'd scribbled on a napkin in an all-night truck stop, somewhere in Tennessee, when we thought we'd never return.
Margie had the unenviable job of being Mr. Klump's secretary, an enforcer in a world full of teenagers.
Did I Tell You?
Along with being high school principal, a position requiring the management of hundreds of students, their learning, and a couple dozen teachers and their vocations, Mr. Klump found time to be head football coach. He was a great coach, too, producing powerhouse teams that dominated their league. And he was a family man, too. For a few years, his son led the offense at quarterback, later riding his athletic and academic successes on to Columbia University.
And one other thing. Our little village, Windsor, happened to have a mayor named Merritt Klump. I have no idea whether or not he was good at it or even what party he belonged to. The Kennedy and King assassinations and the Vietnam war had eaten away my enthusiasm for politics, and these tragedies had done one other thing. They'd initiated or, at least, empowered the decades long destruction of the idealistic America that Merritt Klump and the dynamic, romantic veterans returning from World War II built.
The Sixties I grew up in and where Mr. Klump presided over important corners was gone by 1970. We clung to some strands, but eventually, they went too. That shining decade when an extraordinary generation, Scratch and his contemporaries, built a country and rebuilt much of a severely damaged world, crumbled in the social fires that raged into the mid-Seventies.
Farewell, Merritt Klump!
A year after graduation, I left town, never to return for any but short visits. I don't know what became of Mr. Klump, but I think this appreciation was due him. He was a good, honest, American man of his day. I hope he found a philosophical ground on which to stand tall as the sands of the country his generation build dissipated beneath his feet.
Check that. I know he found a proud place to stand. That was just how his generation did things.
Without A Passport
And what came next...
The Garden of What Was and Was Not
A book about growing up in the Sixties in a small Upstate New York town and what it was like to have the dream come down all around you.d
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