By Larry Teren
Some expressions take on a life all of its own. Consider this: “No man is an island.”
In the early 1960’s our family had by now comfortably situated ourselves in a large two flat in the Austin neighborhood on the far west side of Chicago. Our first floor apartment was laid out so that on the far north end was the kitchen, enclosed backroom parlor and the dining room. Walking south through a corridor on the right or west side were two bedrooms and on the left was our only bathroom and our parent’s master bedroom. It was in that latter room where they hid all the presents we received on various special occasions until the time was right.
At the south end was the living room, which in those days we also called the front room, and a small front parlor where one could sit in an upholstered orange colored fancy chair and look through the three sided bay windows in the parlor to the action going on outside on the sidewalk. Believe me- that was important to a burgeoning ten year old to make sure that he was not missing opportunities to play with friends and neighbors outdoors.
At that point in time we had only one television- a so-called portable Zenith sitting on a stand with rolling coasters. This meant that sometimes the set would be in the front parlor, other times several feet away in the living room in front of the fire place, in our parent’s bedroom or even all the way to the dining room.
But there was one instrument of entertainment that stood its ground. It was the Zenith Stereo H-Fi Console that anchored the north wall in the living room. It was at least four feet wide and three feet (if not more) off the ground, made of wood with cloth covers over the speakers. It was state-of-art with solid-state electronics, AM/FM radio, AFT (automatic fine tuning) and an automatic record changer that allowed one to stack several 33 1/3 lp’s as well as antiquated 78’s using a special adapter.
Dad seemed to enjoy making it a family thing to go to major department chain stores such as E J Korvettes and Sears in the recently opened shopping malls in Oak Brook further west and Golf Mill all the way out to the hinter lands of the northern suburbs. While Ma was busy looking for kid’s clothes or a new appliance, Dad was sneaking off and taking whomever didn’t need to try on the merchandise with Ma to the record collection section. He would peruse the album covers for quite a while until he found either something affordable or, what the heck, something he knew all of us would enjoy.
One album he brought home that we played over and over again was songs performed by Dale Lind, a well-known local Chicago celebrity. His signature song which played last on the album’s second side was “No Man is an Island”. Most songs Dale sang usually were played in minor mode, or musical half steps. This lent the feeling of whatever came out of his mouth as if he was in conversation with the guy upstairs but the listener was allowed to eavesdrop.
The only other person I heard sing that song was Jan Peerce. When we got a second television set and the opportunity to watch our favorite shows became more available, I drifted away from the once-beloved Stereo Hi-Fi. Of course, there was also high school to focus on when I didn’t watch Batman twice a week or Laugh In or whatever other campy, short-run popular culture phenomena.
Time has a way of moving along rapidly, especially if you are not having any fun with it. By the late 1960’s, we had moved to the far north side of the city and the Zenith had found a new location anchoring the west wall of our townhouse. Although there were three floors in the new abode- a basement and an upstairs- as well as a second bathroom, there was less privacy as the main area on the first floor was a combined dining and living room. If one wanted to watch television while another wanted to listen to the fancy record player (after all, that’s what it really boiled down to), a fight equal to the shenanigans prior to the Liston-Clay bout broke out.
When our parents finally purchased a color tv in the early 1970’s, that was it for the Stereo Hi-Fi. It was moved to the basement and its space taken up by a bookcase. I don’t remember too many of the other four siblings going downstairs to listen to a record when they could buy a cassette tape and play it in the comfort of their bedroom.
The new millennium was not kind to Dad. In October 2002, on his eightieth birthday, he fell down and broke two ankles and spent the rest of his life in a nursing home outside of one night when we took him home to give him a breather from being institutionalized. We understood very quickly that it would not work out as both his ability and desire to stand on his own two feet no longer would happen.
Ma and I recognized how much he enjoyed the handful of cassette tapes I bought for him to hear. She casually said how it was a shame that he could not listen to all the old 33 1/3 lp’s he cherished that were still sitting in the basement. At that very moment I replied, “why not? How do we know if the Zenith works or not unless we try it? If it does, I can try to record blank tapes by placing the cassette recorder as close to the cloth speakers as possible and see how it goes.”
There were a couple of impediments- the cloth speakers had water stains from all the mini floods the basement experienced as well as the unit had not been plugged into the wall outlet in more than ten years. We were clueless if the stereo speakers were functional.
I put in a blank cassette into a tape recorder and grabbed a handful of record albums and chose what to play. One was the Dale Lind album. I plugged in the Hi-Fi power cord into the outlet, opened the cabinet lid and placed the album onto the turntable. The auto-changer was broken but who needed it anyway? I turned the knob to the ‘on’ position and forty years returned with the snap of a finger. I immediately pressed the ‘record’ button on the cassette and let it go for a minute. I then stopped it, pressed the rewind button back to the beginning and pressed ‘play’. I was a kid in a candy store. With a successful sound check, I was able to determine how far away to hold the cassette recorder in my hand while the record played, scratches and static nevertheless.
Even though it meant I had to hold my hand up to the record for twenty minutes or so and not waver, it was well worth the trouble. I brought the recordings to Dad and he listened as if it were still forty years ago and he could strut around and lead the imaginary orchestra accompanying Lind. When “No Man is an Island” played, Dad sang along as if in a duet, on key and with the right tempo. Afterward he said that Ma would love it if she could hear it as well.
Yesterday, I was viewing a YouTube recording of a “To Tell The Truth” game show episode from May 13, 1962. The first set of three contestants was of one where each claimed to be the real George Tweed who evaded capture in the early years of World War II on the island of Guam. Up to 28,000 Japanese soldiers combed the island looking for him and a handful of other sailors who had not yet been taken as prisoners of war. The others were eventually found and killed. He successfully hid out with the help of natives for two years before he was able to signal American troops out at sea.
After the real Mr. Tweed was revealed, the host, Bud Collyer, mentioned that a movie had just been made about the incident. It was called, “No Man is An Island.” No mention was made during the give and take by the panelists and the three contestants as to why Mr. Tweed survived the ordeal. The premise of the movie, though, was that he had been a self-centered person who had a spiritual awakening and learned to trust the Guam natives.
The original expression of “No Man is an Island” is credited to John Donne, an English poet who lived from 1572-1631. The poem ends with another famous phrase, also turned into a movie title, “for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
The lyrics to the song written in the early 1960’s are attributed to Joan Baez.