BITS and PIECES # 16

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December 29, 2012 by palamow

Bits and Pieces # 16

Happy New Year from Luquillo,

Here is a story about a New Year’s Eve tradition that my family observed for many years beginning in the 1940’s. I think you might enjoy reading it as the clock ticks away toward 2013.  I wish you all a new year filled with peace, prosperity and lots of nice surprises!

A NEW YEARS EVE TRADITION

Our family celebrated New Year’s Eve at home – dad and mom made it a tradition – my sister and I were allowed to (sleepily) drink cocoa, eat cookies and participate in the activities until, at the stroke of midnight, we would all hug and sing Auld Lang Syne — then we children would scurry upstairs to bed.

As the years passed, we gradually collected a fascinating array of adherents who shared in this family ritual — one of the first was the blind Welsh piano virtuoso, composer and radio personality Alec Templeton. A family friend, he became a ‘charter member’ around 1940. He would arrive at our front door, escorted by the driver of the taxi that had brought him, early enough to share dinner with us — I was fascinated by his blindness and by how he coped so effortlessly with it.  After dinner, Mr. Templeton would enliven the evening’s activities by performing some of his original works on the Bechstein concert grand piano that occupied a place of honor in our living room.  My favorite was his hilarious send-up of how Sir Arthur Sullivan’s somber ballad ‘The Lost Chord’, would have sounded, had it been composed by both W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur. (” I never seated myself at the organ, and I’m never, never ill at ease, and my fingers never wander idly, over the noisy keys” and so on)…

A year or so later, our family’s two cherished (and slightly daffy) Russian friends, singer/actor Adia Kuznetzoff and actor/comedian Leon Belasco became regular attendees at our new year’s eve festivities — at some point during the evening, they would erupt raucously from a taxi and proceed up the flagstone path to our front door — Mr. Kuznetzoff’s baritone voice accompanied by Mr. Belasco’s violin — Mr. Kuznetzoff was a tall, bear-like, dark visaged ‘Cossack’, while Mr. Belasco was a diminutive, reedy figure — together, they made a comical Russian ‘Mutt and Jeff’ pair.   They would arrive, loaded-down with linen covered baskets of Russian delicacies, including our family’s favorite, tasty perozhkis (steaming hot buns filled with ground meat, spices, mashed potatoes and onions), as well as presents for everyone — my sister coveted the colorfully decorated, wooden ‘babushka’ dolls she received each year, and I looked forward to another toy Cossack horseman to add to my collection.

Mr. Templeton and Mr. Belasco, would swiftly be pressed into service, accompanying Mr. Kuznetzooff as he soulfully sang Russian folk songs such as ‘Orchi Chichornia’ and the gypsy ballad ‘Segoiner’ (my mother’s favorite)…

The evening would progress gaily (and noisily) along, bolstered by lots of rich food, strong drink (for the adults) and matchless entertaining, until, at the stroke of midnight, the phone on the antique Spanish desk in the living room would ring — and our New Year’s eve celebration would be complete…

Let me explain…

Nate Stein was a (very) minor cog in the Hollywood talent agent machine — from time to time he ‘managed’ an ever-shrinking string of wanna-be and has-been ‘talent’, getting them minor roles in forgettable films — he also occasionally ‘dabbled’ in other less conventional (and sometimes slightly illicit) pursuits. At one point, dad had intervened to bail him out of a minor difficulty, and Nate had promptly given thanks by ‘adopting’ our family as his own…

He would drop by the house from time to time to see dad — a tiny, rotund, balding character, with a shrill voice and a pronounced ‘wise guy’ demeanor (think Danny DeVito in the TV series ‘Taxi’) — we thought of him as a sort of diminutive ‘mascot’…

No matter where he was on New Year’s Eve, he would somehow manage to telephone us at the stroke of midnight, to wish us a Happy New Year — he would speak to each of us in turn, in his memorably squeaky Brooklyn accent, and of course we looked forward to this annual event with great anticipation. On one memorable occasion, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would not be hearing from Nate – he had been convicted of federal tax evasion and was spending time as a guest of the state of California at San Quentin prison. Nonetheless, at the appointed hour, we all gazed hopefully at the telephone — Dad picked it up when it rang promptly at midnight and the following conversation ensued:

Dad (dubiously): Hello?

Nate: “Hiya Al – Happy New Years!

Dad: “Nate, old boy, so good to hear your voice — but I’m slightly mystified – aren’t you presently incarcerated?

Nate: “You mean am I still in jail? Well, yeah, but I give a guard a sob-story and after I backed it up with a ten spot he let me use this pay phone in the corridor outside my cell — I wouldn’t have missed calling you guys for nothing!”.

And so it went through the ensuing years – we continued to look forward to the ritual of Nate’s annual telephone calls, and were seldom disappointed…

In 1953, I was serving in Korea as what would eventually become known as the ‘Forgotten War’ was winding down. My squadron had a small ‘MARS’ (Military Amateur Radio Service) station set-up in a tent in the middle of the compound.  In those long-ago ‘pre-cel phone’ and ‘pre-cyber’ days, MARS stations were our sole means of communicating with loved ones back home.  The MARS radio operator would contact amateur ‘HAM’ radio stations in the US by shortwave radio, and the HAM operator would patch calls over ‘landline’ telephone to family members — at no cost!

Near midnight on New Year’s Eve, I was sitting on my bunk, hoisting a beer with my tent mates waiting to ring-in the New Year, when the tent flap suddenly opened and a breathless messenger from the MARS shack informed me that I had a telephone patch from California!  I swiftly donned my parka and hurried through the snow to the radio tent, praying that it wasn’t bad news — when I put on the headset and picked-up the microphone — you guessed it — the scratchy, voice I remembered so well wheezed “Hiya Butch – It’s your old pal Nate Stein — Happy New Year kid”.  “Nate, how in heaven did you…”  “Ah, it was easy, kid — your old man give me the name of your outfit and I worked it through an old army buddy who set it up for me”

That was Nate’s last call (he had also called mom and dad) — he passed away a few months later – he was 75, and his health had been in decline for a year or so…

Nate Stein remains a very important part of our family’s lore — his guileless friendship, and of course his amazingly persistent and highly anticipated telephone calls from all over the world at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve will never be forgotten…

© 2012 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

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