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My parents' first date was at a gay bar sometime in 1953.

Now, before any of you assume that my parents were either kinky, closeted, or both, let me state for the record that it was a combination of bad information on Dad's part, extreme naivete on Mum's, and that it all did work out in the end.  At the time, though, it nearly derailed their relationship for good.

My parents had met a few months earlier when they both taught at Wilkinsburg High School (geometry and English, respectively).  Wilkinsburg has gone through hard times lately, with a declining population and gang violence, but back in the 1950s it was a thriving, densely populated, deeply religious commuting suburb of Pittsburgh.  Best known for the unusually high concentration of Protestant churches and the complete lack of bars inside the municipal boundaries, the little borough was a good place to start one's career, or so both my parents thought.

Dad, who was almost thirty, had dated some but never found the right woman.  He was well on his way to what they used to call a "confirmed bachelor" when he spotted my mother in the hallways.  Mum, petite and dark-haired, looked a bit like the actress Marie Windsor, and Dad was smitten almost immediately.  

That doesn't mean he asked her out immediately; whether due to innate shyness, past bad experiences, or what seems to be a familial inability to flirt I inherited in full measure, Dad spent several weeks mooning over his gorgeous young colleague without doing much more than exchanging pleasantries in the faculty break room.  It wasn't until a friend said, "That's a really pretty girl, and if you don't ask her out, I will!" that Dad finally got up the nerve to ask Mum if she'd like to have dinner with him.

Mum, who was still smarting from a relationship in graduate school with a handsome, intelligent, condescending misogynist, was impressed by how respectful, mature, and kind Dad seemed.  She said yes, they set the date and time, and right on time he picked up her at the apartment she shared with her sister and two of her brothers.  They ate, chatted, and all seemed to be going well as they left the restaurant and headed for the jazz club Dad had selected for the evening's entertainment.

Mum didn't know all that much about jazz, but Dad loved it.  One of the photos he took during his Army days was of band leader Guy Lombardo during a USO tour, he paid part of his way through graduate school by playing the trumpet in a jazz combo, and his favorite place in New Orleans was Preservation Hall, then home to Sweet Emma Barrett and her backup band.  He used to go to jazz clubs on his own, and if the big bands were his favorite, he enjoyed modern jazz, Dixieland, ragtime, and bebop as well.  I have no doubt that he would have loved Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall, and Norah Jones today, and as much as I owe Mum for my love of books, I owe Dad for my love of everything from early music to Lady GaGa.

All this is to say that Dad was looking forward to introducing the girl he was already falling for to the music he loved.  

Imagine, then, his shock when they walked into the club, took their places, ordered a Manhattan (Dad) and a soda (Mum)...and Dad realized that Mum was just about the only woman in the room.  And that many, many of the tables were occupied by two men...who were talking in low voices, holding hands, and acting much more like he'd acted with Mum earlier in the evening than just a couple of buddies having drinks.

Dad was horrified; he'd heard something about the club changing owners, but hadn't realized that the new management had decided that there was more money in catering to the small, closeted homosexual community of Pittsburgh than in improvisation music.  Worse, it was 1953.  Homosexuality was still illegal in a lot of places, and leaving aside a few organizations like the Mattachine Society, societal acceptance of anything approaching a same-sex relationship, same-sex thoughts, or same-sex anything was a laughably utopian fantasy.  Simply being seen in this club could destroy his reputation and career, not to mention sabotage any hopes of seeing Mum outside of work.

So Dad did what any red-blooded heterosexual man of the early 1950s would have done in this situation:  

He mumbled an excuse so lame neither he nor Mum could recall it, grabbed their coats, slapped some money down on their table, and hustled Mum out the door, into the car, and back to her apartment before you could say "American Patrol."  And then, being the gallant Army veteran he was, Dad was so embarrassed by the whole mess that he didn't ask Mum out again for the next six weeks.

Mum, who'd thought Dad was quite a nice young man, was, to put it mildly, bewildered.  Had she done something wrong?  Did Dad actually have another girlfriend?  A deep-seated aversion to jazz clubs (in which case why had he taken her to one in the first place?  He was perfectly friendly at work, so what was going on?

She was bewildered, and a little hurt, and it's hard to blame her.  At the same time, she really did like this fellow, so when he came to her about six weeks later and asked if she'd like to have dinner, she said yes.

That date went perfectly:  they talked, they ate, they drank, and by the end of the evening they'd started to realize that this was the beginning of something special.  They saw each other again, and again, and by the time Dad finally fessed up and told Mum just why he'd acted the way he had six months earlier, they were starting to plan a future together.

That future began in June of 1955, when they married.  Dad wore a white dinner jacket, Mum a tea-length gown in blush pink silk organza.  They had their share of disagreements over the years, but they were as happy as any couple and happier than most for the nineteen years they had before a heart attack claimed Dad in 1975.  

And they never ceased to get a good laugh out of that very first date.


One of the things that my parents passed along was their mutual love of the good things in life.  Mum loved to read and was never without a good book in her hands.  Dad wasn't as bookish as Mum, but he played several instruments (piano, trumpet, and ukelele) and sang in a rich baritone voice.  Both were college graduates (Mum had a BA from Thiel and had done graduate work at Pitt, while Dad had gone to the University of Ohio and Teachers' College, Columbia), both enjoyed art and the theater and humor that relied more on wit than on pratfalls, and if there was a print, a book, or a record in the house that was truly vulgar, I sure never saw it.

This isn't to say that Mum and Dad were intellectuals in the purest sense.  Even though Dad eventually worked for several colleges as an administrator, the atmosphere in our house was what one might call "upper middlebrow," with subscriptions to magazines like The Saturday Review" and National Geographic, good quality fiction, well-researched non-fiction, and a record collection heavy on classical warhorses, original cast recordings of Broadway shows, and humor that relied on wordplay and wit like Tom Lehrer.  If I ended up going beyond their tastes in reading, humor, and (especially music), it's only because of the solid grounding that I got almost from the day I became aware of the world around me.

Many of the actual books and records they owned are long gone, of course; we moved several times when I was young, and there were only so many books and records I could take back to Massachusetts after Mum's death in 1996.  I still own some, though, and I very much doubt that I would be the person I am today if I hadn't read these when I was young, impressionable, and had no idea what it would do to me.

Tonight I bring you three of those books that shaped my young life.  My parents, especially Dad, loved to laugh, so it's no surprise that tonight's selection are all humorous.  One is English, one America, and one French, and all are guaranteed to give you a chuckle (or more) on this snowy winter's night:

1066 And All That, by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman - I was all of ten when I first picked up this slim book and started to read the battered, poorly repaired copy that Dad had liberated from the Wilkinsburg High School library before it was deaccessioned.  I didn't get some of the references until much later ("he threw his cavalry many thousands of paces over the River Flumen" made no sense at all until freshman Latin), but that didn't keep me from laughing until I was practically in tears over this brilliant little parody of English history.  

Originally written for Punch, the venerable British humor magazine, in the 1930s, 1066 And All That simultaneously skewers historiography, history students, human memory, and the way that what we remember from school may or may not be strictly accurate.   Actual events and people are described the way students remember them, with predictably hilarious results (King Arthur and King Alfred are conflated, Queen Elizabeth is actually a man known as Big Bess or Brown Bess, Morton's Fork is an actual fork that Henry VIII sticks into his enemies), there's a selection of fake reviews that must be read to be believed, and every few chapters there's a test that admonishes the reader "not to write on both sides of the page at once" or asks whether one would wish to face "a Wapentake or a Maginogion (be quick)."  

Best of all, the lunacy is so solidly grounded in actual English history that 1066 And All That is a terrific little mnemonic.  I can't tell you how many times over the years I've been been able to remember a specific incident, politician, or battle solely because of lines like "Anne:  A Dead Queen" or "Have you got Edmund Mortimer?  If not, can you get him?"  

If you haven't read this, pick it up.  You will never regret it.

My Life and Hard Times, by James Thurber - one of the books that got me through the dark, anguished days after Dad's heart attack was reading was this little collection of humorous essays by one of America's finest humorists.  

Thurber's family, from the grandfather who was convinced that the local police were Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry come to assault the battlefields of urban Ohio, to the cousin who heaped her valuables outside her bedroom with a polite note urging the non-existent burglars to take her jewelry rather than chloroforming her reminded me strongly of my own, even if we weren't quite so eccentric.  Even better was Thurber's graceful, lucid prose, which perfectly captured the voice of mid-century America in all its vivid, messy, contradictory glory.

I learned years later that (of course) Thurber's accounts were not strictly accurate.  Like all artists, he'd applied art to fact to shape his memories.  But if he didn't necessarily choose fact over story, the results are so funny, so heartfelt, so loving that it truly doesn't matter in the end.

Candide; or, Optimism, by Voltaire - like so many intelligent, educated people of their time, my parents bought a fine selection of classics from the Heritage Press and its sister, The Nonesuch Press.  These publishing houses, which distributed less expensive editions of the works printed by the Limited Editions Club, specialized in what today would be called "the Western canon," with a heavy emphasis on works that were undisputed classics.  The rough equivalent today would probably be the Easton Press, although the Heritage Press editions were cloth bound, not leather bound.  

We had quite a few of these books, and unlike many post-war families with aspirations of sending their children to college, we actually read them.  I still love the illustrations in their editions of The Faery Queen and Gray's Elegy, but the book I read practically to death was Voltaire's masterful hatchet job on 18th century philosophy.

I was only fifteen or so when I picked up Candide, and Mum later admitted that she wasn't sure I'd understand it...and then she caught me doubled over, all but unable to breathe over Dr. Pangloss burbling merrily that even though he'd lost his job, most of his teeth, had a whopping case of the pox, had been dissected at an auto-da-fe, and generally had had a life that would be dignified by the term "sucky," it was still the best of all possible worlds.  I read it in about two days, wrote a paper for European history on it, and dipped into it periodically for the next couple of years.  My classmates may not have understood what I was talking about, but as long as Mum and I did, who cared?

Best of all, I recently opened that self-same copy of Candide, read a couple of pages, and just about fell over laughing.  Candide, Miss Cunegonde, the old woman who loses a buttock despite the being the Pope's illegitimate daughter, and of course Dr. Pangloss - who could ask for more?


What books from your childhood still make you smile?  What have you read that's shaped your sense of humor?  Is there a favorite that's passed the test of time?  We have two feet of snow on the ground, so anything to pass the time will be more than welcome....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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