by Joe Sheppard . . . . . . with a little help from his friends.
For 40 years, Joe "Shep" Sheppard has been collecting a wealth of stories, observations, and anecdotes about LA life. He's tucked them away in his mental rolodex, waiting for the right opportunity to share them.
That opportunity is now!
Although Joe officially retired in June of of 2011, he remains active at LA, continuing in his role as an advisor, a college counselor, and a contributing writer and editor for the Elm Tree and Academy Journal.
We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at LA.
Graduation is always a time for nostalgia—perhaps, for me, a bit more so than usual this spring since it will be my final one as a member of the faculty. But this column isn’t about nostalgia, or graduation, or my Riding Off Into The Sunset. [Cue hoofbeats and “Happy Trails to You.”*]Last year at this time I wrote about the elaborate shows we used to cook up for the night before, culminating, as they do today, in the Senior Slide Show. This time (well, OK, one bit of nostalgia, sort of the wake-up-screaming kind) I want to write about a group of faculty who brought [Pick one: a.) joy and laughter b.) disbelief and consternation c.) cramps and nausea] to generations of LA students and adults.
If you were here for Graduation Night in the 1970s or 80s, one of the pre-slide show acts was usually a performance, if you can call it that, by a ragtag and unsung (literally) group of male faculty members who inveigled, begged, or bullied their way into morning assemblies, holiday programs, alumni events, faculty parties—any happening that was otherwise pleasant, tasteful and possessed of a modicum of dignity. Spawned around 1972 in the living room of our first apartment in Butler house and christened with the groan-worthy moniker of Musicians au Groton by Gordon Sewall ’67, faculty colleague, friend and baritone, the group rehearsed every Wednesday evening in our apartment, singing for a couple of hours and then gargling a therapeutic beer or two to soothe tattered vocal cords. Our original members, as I recall, included George Peabody, Bob Campolieto, Dick Jeffers, Jim Draper, Mike Morrison, Bob Kullen, Gordon Sewall, Ned Mitchell, Terry Murbach and me. Later on, when the group graciously (brazenly?) came out of retirement to spice up a fundraising event or two, new recruits included Pete Hazzard and Mark Haman. Both would have failed the original audition because they sing too well.
As sophisticated and eclectic as the members themselves, the M au Gs’ repertoire boasted holiday favorites like “White Christmas” (sung in the key of C, with a sax accompaniment by Jim Draper in the key of B) and “Silver Bells,” the last chorus being played on a set of semi-tuned pots and pans, glasses and a rubber hose. One favorite, performed in the only year the group went co-ed (we reverted to all-male because we were too good as a mixed chorus), was “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Each person started on one day, from the first to the twelfth, all at the same time. The whole thing lasted about twenty seconds; the effect resembled a musical version of “The Scream.”**
We didn’t pop up just at Christmas, however. In May, our rendering of “M-O-T-H-E-R,” each letter acted out like calisthenics, brought tears to the eyes of...umm… We even ventured into rock and roll with timeless hits like “Teen Angel” and “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” But the song that always left them screaming and begging for more was the old vaudeville classic, “When Banana Skins are Falling,” about a guy who “Got a job out on a farm, just a garden and a barn, picking fruits and vegetables all day.” The first chorus goes like this:
When I’m picking the beets, dear, that’s when my heart beats for you,
When I’m picking blueberries, that’s when I feel blue for you.
When I’m picking the onions, that’s the only time I’ll cry for you,
Reading that, you can understand why the Musicians au Groton went out of business. Actually, as any of the surviving members will tell you, we’re not out of business; like Mount St. Helens, we are just dormant, waiting to erupt for one last time, spewing our musical lava over everyone in our path, leaving them wondering what hit them.
***Even found this on the Web. I like this version because the high-school band is appropriately out of tune and, mercifully, they’re singing so fast that you can’t understand some of the lyrics. www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoC-nGoBm0U
Both of you regular readers of these postings may recall my mentioning in a tribute to the late Jack Burckes that the first person I met upon arriving at LA in September of 1965 was Norm Grant, who “took time off from his many jobs to show me to my single room and bath in Waters House.” One of Norm’s “many jobs” was Head of Buildings and Grounds (the others being teaching physics, serving as assistant headmaster, athletic director, and coaching a couple of sports).
Norm’s crew in those days consisted of five guys, most of whom had been at school for quite a while. I remember Olin Greeley, Eddie Spinelli, and Brownie Gale in particular. Brownie, a slightly built man with a cigarette eternally dangling from his lips, was a painter and carpenter—meticulous, neat and very good at both trades. Dick Jeffers and George Peabody joined the crew in the summer, when there was always a lot of painting to be done.
One day, as Dick tells the story, Brownie was up on the top of a ladder painting the peak of one of the houses. George took a brushful of nice oil-based white paint, climbed up the ladder a couple of feet, painted the backs of four or five rungs, and climbed quietly back down. A few minutes later he and Dick, who were working around the corner, came back to see Brownie contemplating his painted palms and scratching his head. I can hear Norm Grant now: “Jackasses!”
Just as on the faculty, there have been B&G characters along the way. One that my wife Tanya and I remember fondly was a lumbering, very nice guy whom I’ll call Mason Barlow (not quite his real name). Mason was the last of a dying breed, the old-school maintenance man—jack of all trades and master of...well, read on. He knew every shortcut in the book—anything that would get the job done fast and save him as much labor as possible. Having worked for a summer or two on the maintenance crew at St. Mark’s, which was my childhood home, I knew the type quite well. That school had an electrician, Wesley Pigeon, when I was a kid. As far as I could figure at the age of nine, Mr. Pigeon’s job was to walk the corridors in his blue overalls, carrying two six-foot fluorescent tubes on his shoulder.
When we were first married, we lived in the rear apartment in Butler House (next to Loomis), which the school had just bought. The little dining room was converted from a porch and only partially finished to look like a real room. Though there was a hanging light overhead, the ceiling rafters were still exposed, so good old Mason came down, truck loaded with sheetrock, mud, tape, trowels and all the rest. Using a “dead man” made out of a couple of 2x4s to hold up one end of the big sheets, he wrestled them all into place, tacking them in with wallboard nails as he went. Spackle, tape and more spackle went on over the next couple of days, and it was beginning to look like a room—until I came home early one afternoon to find Mr. Barlow jabbing hole after hole in his pristine new ceiling with a long broomstick! Not having bothered to measure and precut a hole for the overhead light, he now had to find the junction box so he could re-hang the fixture. Half an hour and about fifteen holes later, he hit the jackpot, and then spent an hour filling all the holes he’d made. I haven’t been in there in years, but I bet you can still see the dimples that ring the chandelier. I’ve always wondered how long it would have taken to measure and cut a 4-inch hole ahead of time.
Of course, as the school has grown, so has the Buildings and Grounds crew, and the demands placed on them have become more sophisticated. Though many of today’s crew wear more than one hat, there’s no room for a Mason Barlow any more. Carl Anderson and his team of fifteen do an absolutely amazing job of keeping LA’s property in shape—just drive onto campus a few hours after a big snowstorm or a major event like graduation and you’ll see what I mean. Given that there are about twice as many buildings on campus as there were when I arrived in the mid-1960s, it sometimes amazes me that they keep it all running with only 15 people. Norm Grant would be amazed, too.