Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



Touch and Go: A Memoir  by Studs Terkel








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Grab a cup of black coffee (or a drink) and listen to Studs Terkel tell stories in his new book, Touch and Go: A Memoir. The rhythm of his writing matches the mannerisms of his speaking style, and will often bring a smile as you read what he says. He’s been a lifelong student of people, and this book is packed with his memories of some of his most interesting characters. Just when you feel all light and comfortable, Studs gets serious and displays his wisdom and notes the ways in which we need to stand up for our rights in a society that seems to have forgotten the price we have paid for our liberty. Thanks to Studs, our collective memory can come alive, as he presents history in a manner that is easy to listen to and understand. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 5, “Teachers of the Gilded Age,” pp. 48-51:

I haven't mentioned my four remarkable old teachers at theMcKinley High School in Chicago. Some had begun teaching in the nineteenth century, during the Gilded Age. All four were Edwardian in style and demeanor. George W. Powles Jr., teacher since 1800-and-something. Pince-nez balanced delicately on nose, white mustache overflowing; his daily mantra: a cigarette was "a light at one end, a fool at the other." He very much enjoyed my pre­cise reading of Charles and Mary Lamb's Children's Shakespeare. "Oh, young sir, you could handle that Lady Macbeth all right. One day, I'll boast that I taught Shakespeare to a young Sir Henry Irving" I had no idea who Sir Henry was but obviously professor Powles put me in fast company.

Some of my fellow students were impish in nature—a few, mem­bers of the '42s, who were to the Mob what the Junior Chamber of Commerce members were to their elders. The '42s liked me because I always shoved my finished papers to my left while a certain '42 member-in-good-standing was seated behind me. He moved his chair to the left. His vision was apparently 20-20 because he'd always wind up with an A, much to his parents' surprise. There was in our class an ROTC chieftain, with medals brightening the sun­shine where he was. He finked numerous times on his classmates. One, Louis Fratto, who won the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) featherweight title, beat the bejeepers out of the medal-honed one. He asked me if he had gone too far. I kissed both his cheeks as General Foch did those of American soldiers in World War I.

As a parting gift, Mr. Powles offered me two books. I say "of­fered" because it was more than giving. Two books: Roget's The­saurus and Olive Schreiner's novel The Story of an African Farm. The latter was written under the name of Ralph Iron, much as George Eliot found a name of her own. What astonished me so many years later, during a visit to South Africa, was that Nadine Gordimer told me that was one of the books she had read as a young woman in her family store near Johannesburg.

Now, the wondrous question: How did George W. Powles, an Edwardian schoolteacher, come across this book? Of course, after the two precious books had been many years in my possession, I lost both. (If there were time, I could heartbreakingly explain how I misplaced and never recovered a letter from Charles Chaplin in Vevey, Switzerland, and an astonishing note from Douglas Fair­banks Jr. on the horrors of ageism. Young Fairbanks was a grandfa­ther at the time and I was his co-speaker. It was an assemblage of old guys and dolls, who gave him a standing ovation. I also lost a West­ern Union telegram from Sterling Hayden, its language so foul that the operator refused to repeat it other than to another woman. It was a lovingly hilarious note of congratulations on my having won the Debs Award.

The second of my McKinley mentors, Robert Potter, was rugged of face with a scraggly mustache. Though he and Powles were venerable contemporaries, their temperaments were some­what at odds. Andrew Potter taught algebra. He was aware of my woeful weakness in anything involving numbers. Nonetheless, he maintained an air of patience. I found his kindness to me inexplica­ble, though as a quiet, shy boy, I was very well behaved. When he spoke of certain kinds of people, his speech was less than tender. I assumed he meant "Mediterraneans." It was the time of Italian and Portuguese workingwomen first writing and then loudly singing "Bread and Roses." No, Mr. Potter had discovered a people to be disliked even more than Mediterraneans: the Jews. As an offering of farewell, he gave me, all wrapped in thick rubber bands, the Dear­born Independent. It was Henry Ford's beauty; he was publisher. (There was much talk among affluent Jewish groups seeking to put forth a car to rival the Model T. It was called the Star. To say that it flopped is to say that Jack Dempsey defeated Billy Miske. The fight lasted one round.) Not a bet was missed; the paper covered every­thing from the Protocols of Zion to the killing of Christ.

Perhaps Mr. Potter thought I was a Mel Gibson born a genera­tion too soon.

I started reading them and they caught my attention and held it fast. They contained the most virulent anti-Semitic speeches I had ever encountered. It was so shameless; it approached an eloquence I had never explored. Meyer told me to throw them into the stove, but I hesitated, for I had seen nothing as sensational since Peaches exposed everything about Daddy Browning.* I regret that I was never able to express my gratitude for Mr. Potter's largesse .. .

Our gym teacher was no Jack La Lanne, nor a Jane Fonda. He was in his seventies, with the traditional mustachio, pocket watch in jacket, suit, white shirt and tie formal attire, except for well-worn white sneakers. "George Commons, sir, is my name." They all had a common attribute, ingenuity. Mr. Commons always wore heavy sweaters because it was forever cold. The elves came through, the '42s. They'd run by tossing hot pennies at him. Drawing himself up to his full height, he'd threaten to take on "a dozen of you Mediter­raneans.

My favorite of all was the gentle Miss Olive Leekley, who was not merely our Latin teacher (she insisted it be pronounced softly Lat-hin, which came easily because she was so thoughtful of everyone's feelings. She even passed the young oaf who suggested that Nero was a southpaw with the Boston Red Sox.).

Most important, she was our debating coach. Each school had an affirmative side and a negative. At McKinley, I had suddenly devel­oped a case of logorrhea, and I was on both sides. The favorite topic was, of course: Resolved, the Death Penalty Shall Be Abolished. There was no honor. The students did the choosing and the '42s saw to it that I did well. They attended all the debates in which I ap­peared. I think of what I might have been, had I gone along with the law and maintained my friendship with the '42s. I might have been Sidney Korshak—Mr. Clout. When Senator Estes Kefauver, a genuine public servant, headed a committee investigating the Mob, Korshak saw to it that he stepped out. Korshak had everything on everyone. Oh, when I was on the negative, I was a small boy Torque­mada. I'm not sure I came out for quartering or the rack, yet some of these buggers had to be punished. I do remember saying as a grotesque small-boy epilogue: "Of course, I didn't mean it." "Oh yeah?" said one my '42s classmates. "Why not?"


* Bernard MacFadden published a scandalous tabloid, the Telegraph. One of its memo­rable exposes concerned the teenaged Peaches and her Daddy Browning. Peaches' Ma approved.


If you liked the excerpt, you’re likely to enjoy all of Touch and Go.


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2008 issue of Executive Times


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