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Skins vs. Shirts

In Briarcliff, there is a community park right in the center of the town. In the old days it was adjacent to the high school and its playing fields. It had a pool, tennis courts, a pond, a library, lots of green grass – just about everything a kid could need during the summer months when school was out.

When I was ten, it was all about the basketball-603039_960_720pool. But as I grew older, I found my true love…basketball. One of the tennis courts at the park was made of cement and doubled as a hoops court. I spent most of my summer afternoons there after work wearing out my high, white, Converse All Stars in a never-ending game of five on five, “skins” versus “shirts.”

There were no refs. None were needed, as calling “foul” was considered unmanly. We rarely kept score, weaving up and down the court with moves we’d copied from Walt “Clyde” Frasier or Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. The real trick was to do Elgin Baylor’s last-minute kick to keep you hanging during a jump shot.

It was hot, sweaty, grueling work rewarded only by the crisp ka-chunk of the metal net when we scored. Players came and players went but the game never stopped. When the soles of our Cons cracked, we’d wrap them in athletic tape and get back in the game. It was glorious. And I loved it.

Which is why it is so difficult for me to admit to being the worst high school basketball player in Westchester County. This, unfortunately, is no exaggeration. During my senior year, Doc Pruitt’s high school basketball team had the worst record among Class C schools (the smallest and therefore lowest ranking schools in the county). And I was the worst player on the team.

Actually, I was one of three worst players. There were thirteen boys on the team. Of those thirteen, five started every week. Another five made up the second string. That left three for the bench. And the bench is where we sat every day – even during practice. The five starters would play the five second stringers for two hours while the three bench-warmers would sit, watch, and wait for wind sprints at the end of the day.

I used to tell myself that I was a victim of training too hard for football, so that when winter came around, I wasn’t “basketball ready.” If only coach Pruitt would give me the chance to get my basketball legs, I’d be fine. But, the truth is, I wasn’t very good. By the time I was a senior, my body wasn’t built for basketball, it was built for knocking people down. And for the most part, when I got on the court, that’s what I did.

Being one of the three benchwarmers was embarrassing. Every Tuesday and Friday nights, we’d parade into the gym in front of the whole school in those short shorts and sleeveless tank-top shirts (a humiliating experience for those of us with acne) and then sit at the far end of the bench so that Coach Pruitt would have faster access to the first and second squads. The three of us never got to play. It didn’t matter if we were losing by thirty points. (Notice I didn’t say up by thirty points? We were never up by thirty points). Even then, we were expected to “keep our heads in the game” and cheer for our starters.

I hated it.

As the weeks went by and my situation did not improve, I grew angry. How could I improve if I didn’t play during practice? One day after watching yet another two hours go by, I’d had enough.

“I’m quitting,” I told the coach.

“I thought Gleasons didn’t quit.” This was a reference to my two older brothers; Doc was telling me that I was shaming my family’s reputation.

“Coach, I’m not even playing in practice.”

“Fine. You’re off the team.” And that was that.

Except that it wasn’t. I started watching from the stands. Having played a sport every season since I could remember, I wasn’t used to spectating. I liked it even less than watching from the bench.

And then a funny thing happened at a Friday night game. One of the other two benchwarmers, a boy named Wade, decided he too had had enough. Instead of sitting next to the team, head in the game, and cheering on his fellow players, Wade sat several places to the right – apart from the team.

In addition to the angry looks he got from Doc Pruitt, the move caused murmurs from the stands. What was he doing? Didn’t he want to play?

The next game, he again sat apart, but this time he brought a newspaper and started reading the comics. The whole auditorium spent more time watching him than the team. The next game, Wade wore sunglasses and wrapped his legs in a beach towel.

The crowd fell in love with him. When we got behind, they chanted, “WADE!” “WADE!” “WADE!” After two or three games of this, Coach Pruitt caved to the pressure and put him in the game.

It brought down the house. The entire student body stood and stomped their approval on the new gym’s wooden bleachers. By season’s end, Wade started playing more than some of the second stringers. From my lonesome spot in the stands, all I could do was shake my head with envy. Wade had found a way into the game while I had taken myself out of it.

It took me a long while to understand what had happened and a few more failures to learn the truth: Humor can be more powerful than anger and a clever protest more effective than a principled stand.

Wade, next time we meet, the beer is on me.

How Bobby Thompson Changed My Life

I was a jock.

In Briarcliff Manor High School, this was not an altogether laudatory term in the four years between 1969-1973. The cultural/generational divide of the late sixties had a cascading effect on the years that followed, creating a backlash against all things conventional. Short hair was out; long hair was in. Dress codes were out; jeans and tie-dyed shirts were in. Following the rules was out; protests and sit-ins were in. Gin was out; smoking pot was in. Jocks were out; hippies were in.

imagesMuch to my consternation, I attended high school during the one brief moment in time when being on the football team did not enhance one’s social status.  Jocks were considered by many to be square, boring, and one-dimensional, if not intellectually slow.  I didn’t mind this too much.  I embraced the role of being a jock whole-heartedly and did nothing to defy the mold.  I played a sport every season (whether I was good at it or not) and was comfortable in my conventional-ness.  When Deryl Seemayer nominated me for student council president, he began his speech saying, “What’s wrong with a jock?  He works hard, ‘round the clock…”  (My speech wasn’t half as good as his and I lost in a landslide).

In part, being a conventional jock was a factor of my upbringing.  My dad was a Marine, a strict disciplinarian who had clear ideas about how my brothers and I should look and behave.  Every Saturday morning, when we were younger, my Dad would line us up in the kitchen to buzz-cut our hair.  The Gleasons played football.  We worshiped Vince Lombardi, a strong work ethic, and those who kept their noses to the grindstone.  My two older brothers were also a significant influence.  Although I never would have admitted it at the time, I revered them.  I wanted to be just like them.  To me, they were more than role models; they were larger than life.

So I became a jock and was happy to be one.  But I had a secret – one that I guarded religiously and never disclosed to my friends in high school.

I could sing.  

I don’t mean I could just carry a tune.  I could really sing.  When I was ten, I was invited to join the Columbus Boys Choir (think of it as the American version of the Vienna Boys Choir) one of two elite travelling boys choirs in the country.

Here is why it became a secret: 

In elementary school, our music teacher, Mrs. Kuch, recommended me to the Columbus Boys Choir and urged my parents to have me apply for admission. My parents had always encouraged musical endeavors, and so were happy to give me this opportunity. 

To be invited to the choir, aspirants attended a summer camp that served as a four-week tryout.  We sang eight hours a day, seven days a week and were drilled in unrelenting exercises to perfect our range, breathing and control.  One of those exercises was described like this, “Imagine you are holding an extremely hot cup of tea to your lips – so hot that if the tea touches you, it will scald.  I want you to breathe in and sing so carefully that you don’t disturb the tea.  It must never touch your lips.”  And then we’d practice our scales, breathing ever so carefully over our imaginary cups of tea. “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”  We did this at the start of every practice, every day.

Two weeks into the term, we had parents’ day.  Having never lived away from home prior to this, I couldn’t wait to see my folks.  The school, of course, put on a show for them to demonstrate what we had learned under the choirmaster’s care.  My parents proudly sat in the front row of the audience, with my two older brothers seated next to them.

And then, disaster struck.  After performing two songs, the choirmaster turned to address the parents and started to describe our daily regimen of practice.  Imagine you are holding an extremely hot cup of tea to your lips…”  Staring out from my place in the third row, I could see my older brothers clearly and I knew what was coming.   A trickle of sweat rolled down my back and it wasn’t because the weather was warm.  The choirmaster turned to us to perform our scales and elevated his hand to match the rising pitch of our voices.  “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”   

My two older brothers fell off their chairs.  They howled with laughter.  To this day, they still tell this story, mimicking the choirmaster’s hand and singing in falsetto. “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”   When I came home from camp, the misery was unrelenting.  By the end of the summer, I concluded that singing was not a manly thing to do and vowed never to sing again.   

And I didn’t.  I made my way through junior high and the first three years of high school without uttering a note.  Those who knew I could sing forgot and my two older brothers eventually went away to school.  

Which brings me to how Bobby Thompson changed my life.  Bobby Thompson went to Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire that one of my brothers attended the last two years of high school. I went to visit him for a weekend and got to meet his newfound friends, most of who were on the wrestling team.  Bobby Thompson was easily the most memorable.  An African American from Blueville, West Virginia, Bobby weighed 300 pounds and was rumored to have broken an opponent’s leg in the ring. 

In May of my junior year I attended my brother’s graduation from Exeter.  Bobby was the student selected to give the commencement speech.  He stood and, after some brief remarks for his teachers and classmates, acknowledged the benefactors who made his education possible and thanked them for the opportunity that it would provide him. And then, he did something unexpected. 

Bobby sang Amazing Grace.

St. Augustine is credited with saying, “He who sings prays twice.”  If that is true, Bobby’s hymn that day was worth a thousand prayers.  Big, full-throated, passionate, his voice swept the room away with him on journey that humbled everyone in its unabashed grace and humility.  He sang without accompaniment.  He sang from the heart.  And when he was done, the entire auditorium wept as one.

I had never experienced anything like it.  It wasn’t a performance; it was an act of love and gratitude.  I was riveted.  And I was ashamed.  Bobby’s hymn had laid bare for me my cowardice.  He had never been embarrassed – could never be embarrassed – by the gift he had been given.  In many ways it defined him, far more than his weight or his prowess in the wrestling ring.  His confidence and his joy transcended ridicule.  I, on the other hand, had been weak and afraid.

I returned home, went back to high school, and fell into my regular routine.  But I couldn’t escape the shame that dogged me.  I was so furious at how easily I had been cowed into silence.   I vowed to do something about it.

Every spring, Briarcliff had a student variety show.  It always was a funny mish-mash of talent featuring whatever the students that year could bring to bear.  In my years, there was a plethora of singing talent.  Billie Nininger, his sister Annie, Clay Callihan, Pat Moffett.  I wasn’t sure that I could measure up.  Their talents had progressed with the years. They played instruments.  I was stuck with what I had learned up to the age of ten.  My voice had changed.  Old fears filtered through my anger and I panicked.  My voice cracked during tryouts and I was so embarrassed that I stopped singing mid-song and walked away.

They let me in anyway.  Two weeks later I was standing on stage behind the curtain, just me and my demons.  It should be no surprise that I chose to sing the one song that had gotten me on that stage in the first place. I heard the announcer say, “And now Joe Gleason, singing Amazing Grace.” 

The curtain opened.  There was just me and a microphone.  And the crowd started to laugh.  I was a jock, after all, and jocks were supposed to be funny – they were not supposed to sing.  I took a deep breath, thought of Bobby Thompson, and hit the first note.  After a few more, no one was laughing.  And then I let myself go. I don’t remember much after that; it became more of a prayer for me than anything else. 

So, thank you, Bobby for redeeming me.  “I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind, but now I see.”

Do you have a minute?

I met Joe Kolman when I was in seventh grade. He was the track coach at Briarcliff Mimagesanor High School and he came out to watch the new crop of middle schoolers running around the field during gym class. I posted a particularly good time that day and he stepped up to introduce himself and invited me to consider cross-country and track. I declined, of course, thinking track was for losers. I played baseball.

Coach Kolman was also a history teacher who had gone to Dartmouth. A small, thin man, with short, black curly hair, he had a five o’clock shadow that seemed perpetually in place. During the turbulent sixties, he was one of the few teachers who could connect with the students.

“Do you have a minute?” he would ask in the hallway as if we had somewhere else to go. Sometimes he just had a question; at others he’d suggest participation in a school club or activity or ask our opinion about the news of the day. He appeared awkward at first, but I quickly realized he was just someone who chose his words with care. In a group, he often hesitated out of a concern that others should have an opportunity to say their piece. He was always polite, always soft-spoken.

I never had him for history, but those who did loved his course. He was known for motivating students to think and speak for themselves and encouraging them to consider other points of view – he often assigned homework that challenged students to argue the opposite side of an issue they supported.

I forgot our initial conversation until my junior year when I failed to make the varsity baseball team. This wasn’t much of a surprise, by then. I couldn’t hit. I couldn’t throw. In fact, I’m stunned they let me hang around as long as they did. With nothing left to do for the spring term, Steve Pagnotta and I went out for track.

We had a small team. One shot putter, a few sprinters, a few long distance runners. I ran the 220 and the 440 sprints. We did poorly in just about every meet because we couldn’t fill out all the events.

Pags and I lobbied the rest of the football team – at least those not otherwise engaged – to join the team for our senior year. Suddenly, Coach Kolman’s track team ballooned with competitors (that’s an overstatement – we ballooned with bodies. None of us yet had learned how to be competitive). We had a full weight team – including discus. We had long jumpers, triple jumpers, pole vaulters – you name it. He was very happy.

We still struggled competitively. We had good athletes, but were such a small school that we lacked depth and it showed during the competitions. I remember one county meet where I had to run the 220, the 440 and the 440 relay back-to-back-to back. After competing in the first two events, I made it about 400 of the 440 meters relay before the bear jumped on my back. I struggled to hand-off the baton and collapsed by the side of the track. I was so tired I couldn’t get up after the meet. I just lay there until Coach Kolman realized I wasn’t on the bus and came back to find me.

After that, I switched one event to high jump (which if you’ve ever seen me play basketball is rather amusing). Surprisingly, however, I could jump my height at five eleven.

Once, we had a meet against Irvington and as the afternoon unfolded, we were tied in points. The entire meet would be decided by the high jump, which usually was the last event of the day. I had made a mistake early on by warming up with the lower jumps. When the Irvington jumper and I both made 5’ 11,” he had fewer attempts. If we tied, I would lose. I had to jump a level higher than him to win.

We had three chances to try for 6’. By then, the entire roster of both teams had gathered around the high jump pit. Everyone knew what was on the line. The kid from Irvington missed the first jump. So did I. We retraced our steps and tried again. He missed the second jump. So did I. They reset the bar for the third and final attempt. He missed. So, it all came down to my final jump. If I made it, we would win the meet. If I missed –

“You can do it, ” a voice called from the crowd. Inside my head I remember thinking, “No, I can’t. I’ve never cleared six feet.”

Suddenly, Joe Kolman was there with his clipboard in hand. “Do you have a minute?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I just recalculated the score and realized that we’ve already won the meet. You don’t have to make the jump. We’ve got this, but it would be great to see you clear that bar.” He patted me on the shoulder and left me to the jump.

Relieved, I took a deep breath and let it out. I squared my shoulders, took my three long strides and jumped for all I was worth. My right foot leapt high over my head and I lay back and rolled, trying to keep my body as flat as possible. I cleared the height with room to spare and kicked my back leg out to avoid the bar. The crowd erupted as I fell into the mat. By the time I climbed out, I was mobbed.

“What a jump!”

“Unbelievable!”

That’s when I realized that Coach Kolman had lied. I looked over at him from the crush of bodies and he just shrugged, an impish smile stealing across on his face.

Coach Kolman died on December 26th of last year. I learned about it on a FaceBook page devoted to his memory by some 200 of his students. Some I knew, Barney Rush, Jack Connell, Lise Glazier, Rich Mandelbaum but most were strangers to me from his a forty-year career at Briarcliff Manor High School.

At first, I didn’t recognize him from some of their descriptions or even the photographs they posted. He was an older man, no longer thin. His hair was white and longer than I had remembered. He wore glasses.

The more I read, however, the more I realized their memories of him were my memories. And it was clear that his life’s work centered on teaching the youth of Briarcliff Manor to love history and to understand its relevance to events taking place today. But much of what we learned wasn’t in books. He taught us to be careful with our words, thoughtful of other points of view, and competitive in our life’s endeavors.

He was a very, very, good man.

The Clifton BELLES

I was delighted to have an opportunity to speak to the BELLES book club last night (October 29th). BELLES stands for “Bright, Energized Ladies’ League for Educating and Socializing” and I have to say this group of women did not disappoint. About thirty of their ninety members showed up for dinner and a talk at Joya Cottington’s beautiful home in Clifton, VA.

FullSizeRender copyI was treated to fine wine, great questions and a lively conversation about my first book,  Anvil of God, Book One of the Carolingian Chronicles. Topics ranged from my writing process (I’m a pantser not a plotter), my muse (who can be a very scary presence), how characters can take over a story, and how writing explicit sex scenes can be difficult on your children.

Headed by Pamela Jones, the group is a discerning crucible for new and established writers. Their members came prepared with insightful questions about the novel’s main characters (Trudi & Pippin seemed to be their favorites), the role of women in the eighth century, the evolution of historical fiction and the rise of a new category called “faction” (fact-based historical fiction).

Plus, they gave me wine. I’ll show up to speak for good wine any day…

The Winter Ghosts: A Review

I have a weakness for World War I novels and an even bigger weakness for Kate Mosse, a British author known for her best-selling novels Labyrinth and Sepulchre. So, I’m happy to review her latest novel, The Winter Ghosts. 

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