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Joseph William Perry Life Story

Chapter 1

My name is Joseph. I'm sitting in my little parlor/study of our home trying to figure out what I can write in order to share with you who I am. Our home is in a medium-sized house in East Nashville, across the river from downtown. My study is filled with books, musical stuff, assorted carpentry tools parked on the floor and a computer set up on an oak quarter-circle kindergarten table. (I got it from a dumpster and put longer legs on it.) On the wall directly in front of me as I write is a painting of David and Goliath, given to me by my friend Robert Roberg. It is one of my prizes; although it is valuable of itself it represents to me an even greater value, the fact that the most valuable things I have got in this life are not things at all but people: friends, family, brothers and sisters.

I was born in Syracuse, New York in the late summer of 1949, on the last day of summer actually. I am beginning to write this, my life story, on the same date, the last day of summer in the year 2000. I turned fifty last birthday; it seems like I should have made something out of myself in that many years, still I can't remember having done anything that was noteworthy or having made anything that will last. I'm just a person who finds it necessary to look over and over at the same pictures and to tell over and over the same stories until some meaning, some lasting, eternal meaning comes of them.

God have mercy; give us hope.

When I was born our house wasn't finished yet. Dad had built it of concrete blocks but he didn't have all the plaster board up yet so it was a few weeks, I guess, till he finished it. I've seen the pictures of me as an infant with mom and with dad—unfinished drywall as the backdrop. The house was on Sixty Road in Baldwinsville, near Syracuse. Joe in BalwinsvilleBefore I was born my Uncle Dick, dad's baby brother, came to visit and may have helped him a few days on the house. All too soon after that Dick was killed in a car crash with his teenaged bride and a schoolmate. I've seen the newspaper clippings. He was beloved of his parents and his brothers and sisters. I only knew him from the stories my dad and my grandmother told.

We lived in Baldwinsville until I finished kindergarten, which I attended in a converted bus garage. I used to go to my neighbor's, Danny Thompson, to see Howdy Doody on the television in the afternoons as we didn't have a t.v. yet. We went to church in Nedrow. I remember the preacher had a huge chart with the plan of salvation on it. It had man, sin, the Cross, the judgment and heaven and hell. It was very colorful and attention-getting. To tell the truth I don't know if I remember the actual chart or if I only remember it because I've seen pictures of the inside of the church building with the chart set up in the front.

When my little brother was born I had the chickenpox and so I went to our church friends' house, Hugh and Al Liddle. Their kids were also stricken with it so we had a "chickenpox party", a sort of extended slumber party with the added attraction of calamine lotion. They had three kids: Treece, who was my age, and her older brother and younger brother, Hugh, Jr. and Keith. I think Treece was the first significant female besides my mom in my life. I always remembered her with fondness, though not without puzzlement. I remember on a visit to their house (later, after we moved away) she suggested that we play Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. I thought that was going to be pretty good until I found that her idea of fun was straddling a saw-horse and singing "Happy Trails." Treece wrote me a letter after we moved to another town. I think that was the first personal letter I ever got and it made me feel good.

After kindergarten we moved to Altamont in the Albany area. I can still remember the crisp air and piercing wind as I walked out to wait for the school bus in front of our rented house. Dad and mom soon bought a lot to build on. It was on the side of a hill overlooking what I remember to be a beautiful valley. I remember the hope and expectation. I remember the batter boards and strings that showed where the house was supposed to be. But the house was not built. My mom had a third child; his name was Robert but he died after a few days. He never did come home from the hospital; we were very disappointed. My mom's grief has always been intense . . . and mostly silent. We moved away again. My family lost a lot during that short one and a half years. For more about this time of my life read this story, Up a Tree (10/3/2004--I have misplaced this story, sorry). In it I tell about my little friend Priscilla, my across the road neighbor. My other friends from the Albany/Schenectady area are Harold Gleaves, who I see from time to time, and Jane Stowell, whose friendship I never valued as highly as I should have.

Our next home was in White Plains, in Westchester County. Dad had a job in mid-town Manhattan in a tall building within walking distance of the Grand Central Station. He took the train from the station in White Plains. Mom got her driver's license in White Plains; then she could drive dad to the train and keep the car all day. I was in the second grade when we moved there, fifth grade when we moved away. Some of our closest and best neighbors there were Jewish, the first I had known. Every Christmas most of them had Christmas trees. I didn't know enough to think it odd, my family, though Christian, celebrated Christmas as a non-religious holiday. We believed in the birth of Christ, but we believed that since no one knows the exact day it wouldn't be appropriate to honor one day over another. Just Sunday. That was our one holy day. We were supposed to honor Christ every day. So Christmas was secular and we just had Santa Claus just like our Jewish neighbors. Today I like to celebrate the coming of Christ at Christmas without the false hope of the notorious Saint Nick.

We went to church in the chapel of the YMCA. Our church was a young church with no building of its own. Every time we met for worship in that wood-paneled chapel the picture of Jesus in the front of the room would be taken down. The reason was that no one knows what Jesus looks like and besides it distracted from the worship. Then after church it would be hung back in its place. I suppose you could say our group was a group of iconoclasts? Well, not exactly cause we didn't break them, we just turned them to the wall and then hung them back respectfully when we vacated the rented chapel. My friends at church were the Randals (Ricky, Dana, Eddie and Pam) and Paul Wilton. Ricky, now going by his given name Eric, lives in Alaska close to where my brother lives now.

The church of Christ, with which my family was associated, was largely established in the southern states but in the north where we lived the churches were few and far between. We had no instrumental music in church, no connection with groups that did have it. I was taught not to dance, not to play cards—not with real cards, and not to call anyone a bad name. The second and third of those standards I have broken, to my detriment. The first one, concerning dancing I have broken also; I am in a church today in which dancing is considered a part of worship—quite a turnabout. Our church group was quite famous for the things we weren't allowed to do, but I must be thankful I was raised to respect the Word of God and to know that the most important thing in the world is to follow Christ, which I believe today more strongly than ever.

I think I first went to summer camp during the White Plains years.Me at Bonnie Lodge Our camp was a church-sponsored, outreach camp in Hubbardsville, upstate near Hamilton, the Colgate University town. It was called Camp Hunt after the family who had owned the original farm on the property. The original farm-house was still there; It was a plain wood-frame federal style house. The land was bought in the mid-forties for ten dollars an acre. Dad had been helping with and developing the camp ever since before my birth, I believe. Me at Bonnie LodgeI have seen pictures of me as a toddler behind the old house, called Bonnie Lodge then, surrounded by teenagers half a generation older than me.

When I was a young child going to camp for the weekend meant hard work for my dad but fun for me and my brother. We were overjoyed if the Gleaves were there and we would get to play with Harold, who was a year younger than me and a year older than my brother. Harold seemed to know how to have fun. I remember what must have been a sunny spring day when we asked mom, "Can we take off our shirts? Harold has his off." Mom said no, of course. It was always cold at Camp Hunt.

Camp Hunt accepted campers from the age of eleven and I was not quite ten, but I was going to go and I was excited thinking about it. The picture in my head was of nighttime in the tent with a light bulb hanging from the middle on a wire and all the guys laughing and having a good time. When I got there I found out that there were no electric lights in the boys tents and that we didn't laugh and joke at bedtime. We came down after campfire and quietly got ourselves ready for bed, devotional, and then silence, no noise just go to sleep. I don't think I stayed more than a week that first time. I was pretty young, but in later years I always wanted to stay more weeks than my folks would allow me to stay.

Most of the staff of camp came from church colleges. One family of camp workers were the Kee's from Searcy, Arkansas. There were a bunch from the Philadelphia area and then there was the Thomas clan. J. Harold Thomas and his wife (we called her Mrs. Thomas) were ministering in Groton, Connecticut. They were devoted to the summertime work of Christ at Camp Hunt. Their oldest son Bob came from Idaho, where he taught college, to be camp director. Bob's younger brother Ted was a little older than I was; the next Thomas child was Elaine, a little younger than I. Bob Thomas was about six-foot, six inches tall and a real renaissance man. I think he was a math teacher but he was a good choral director too. We had singing class every day for almost an hour. The first thirty minutes we sang "fun songs" and then we would sing hymns after that. Camp tradition favored the choral-type, musically challenging pieces that were in our hymn book, "Great Songs of the Church." We loved some songs so much that we had the page numbers memorized; we could call them out when we were asked for requests.

During other times, informal gatherings or rainy days, we could sing folk songs. Some of the counselors had guitars—some of them could actually play them. One director we had, John White, from Long Island, would sing "Dark as a Dungeon" to the accompaniment of his arch top guitar. And if he really got going we might be able to get him to sing his special version of "Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms". He would sing so earnestly up to the word charms when he would go ridiculously sharp and everyone was supposed to laugh. But I don't remember laughing; I was so busy watching his fingers to learn the guitar chords. Ted Thomas was my other musical idol. He could sing tenor and hit all the notes right. I liked to sit near him in singing class so I could match the notes on the page with the notes he was singing. And at "hootenanny" time he would bring out his guitar. It had four strings. But it wasn't really a tenor guitar; it was a six string with two empty string slots. The first three strings in their proper place and then, skipping fourth slot, the D string was in the slot of the fifth. He used to fingerpick. I thought it was so cool. I tried stringing my guitar that way but I missed strumming all six strings so I changed it back to the regular way.

I remember a bunch of us sitting on the linoleum-topped tables in the screened-in dining room strumming folk songs. From where I was sitting I couldn't see the most experienced guitarist's fingers, so I was watching another kid's fingers who didn't know all the songs either, but from where he was sitting he could see the other guy (who knew the chords to the song). In short I was the hesitant follower watching the fingers of the other hesitant follower who was watching the fingers of the guy who knew how to play. I learned from that experience to always position myself where I could see the guy who really knew his stuff. Then there was another time I and a kid whose name I don't remember were trying to prepare a song for performance at campfire. He could only play in one key and I could only sing the song in another key. I remember, after we tried making the song work in every way we knew, that kid said, "Well, why don't you play an A chord and I will play a D. Maybe it will match." Even at thirteen years of age I knew that wouldn't work. During those hootenanny times I learned the songs of the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. "Tom Dooley", "The MTA Song", "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" among others. Once I accompanied on guitar as my sweetheart Norma Jean Frawley sang "Five Hundred Miles". I was sweet on her when I found out my family would be moving overseas. Jeannie said it felt like I was going in the military or something. I was fourteen years old that summer. I wouldn't be back to camp until the summer after high school graduation and then as a counselor—my first "responsible job".

I always felt accepted at camp. I fit in there. There were people there who loved children and knew how to make us feel loved. Ellen Smith ministered most of the summers I was at Camp Hunt. She was one of my favorite people. Russell Gleaves, Garth Black, Andy Ritchie and others came to teach Bible classes. Now I find that, in writing about my summers at camp I have skipped over the "non-Camp Hunt"portions of my life. So—now back to 1958 and White Plains, New York and the problems of a kid trying to fit into his culture.

When we moved from Altamont I had just started the second grade. We moved into a split-level on an uphill street above the Bronx River Parkway. There were a lot of boys in the neighborhood who were my age. My next-door neighbor, Doug Rice; Doug Ricemy across-the-street neighbors, twins Mark and Jeff Robinson; my up-the-street friend Paul Lock. Mark and Jeff were the leaders of the boys of my age in the neighborhood. Maybe cause there were two of them they were influential. There were two cultural traditions there that were new to me: the disapproval (among the boys) of "liking girls" and the practice of flipping baseball cards (playing for keeps). I fell for both traditions.

What can one say when one is asked by one's new friends, "Do you like girls?" One knew by osmosis that the answer must be in the negative. I said, no but I lied and I knew I was lying. That was the first lie in my new-found life of lies. With that lie I learned to be false to my friends. With the next lie I learned to be false to my mom and dad. Everyone collected baseball cards. I wasn't particularly interested in baseball but I began to collect them too because they were so highly valued among my peers. A nickel would buy a package of six cards and slab of bubble gum. I got a quarter a week allowance so I was able to get five packs of baseball cards every week. When I first started flipping for keeps I lost all my cards every week. We would stand next to another kid holding a card downwards at arm's length. Then we would swing the arm in a gentle upside-down arc, letting go of it just at the right time so that it would flit down to the ground in a perfect flipping motion. One kid would flip his card; it would land on the heads side (with the color photograph of the baseball star) or the tails side (with the statistics of his playing career). Then the other kid would flip his, attempting to match the heads or tails, whichever it was. Who would know by watching young boys that they were developing a gambling addiction.

I remember the disappointment of losing my baseball cards and having another kid walk away with them. It hurt, but the hurt was short-lived because I could begin to think about acquiring more cards. I could beg my dad for my allowance early and if I got it I could beg him and pester him to take me to Varvarro's, a little grocery/deli in another neighborhood which was reputed to have the best baseball cards. Then when I had a chance to flip cards again I would lose them again. When my parents asked me where my cards were I said I gave them away. I said, "I just gave them all away; I started giving them away and before I knew it I had given them all away." So that was my second lie. I began to be false to my parents. I was almost fifty years old before it came to me that I had done those crimes and that they were still eating away at my conscience, deep in my heart. One day in the presence of the Lord and a trusted friend I repented with many tears. Even now as I think about it, it comes to me that I soon learned to flip baseball cards with the best of them and so I started winning. It was not actually true gambling; it was a learned skill and I learned it. I would practice holding the card in just the same grip every time and, according to whether I held it heads up or tails up, I could make it land the way I wanted. At that point I was able to take away the possessions of younger more vulnerable kids. It seems to me I have the memory of some kid's mom saying, "Did you take his baseball cards? Give them back." And it seems to me I remember feeling a hot shame mingled with an attempt at self-justification. And I think I gave them back. Mothers were the law in those days. Nevertheless, I got quite a collection of sports cards—a shoe-box full. We also traded them: one Mickey Mantle card was worth fifteen or twenty cards of less popular players.

In White Plains I had my first music lessons. My brother and I used to walk together down to the bottom of the hill and have a piano lesson together. I don't remember the lady's name and it didn't last very long, but it must have reinforced my musical nature and started me on the road to learning to read music. Another time, before we moved to Utica, my mom took me with her to New York to Lois Albright's music studio. Mom was taking voice lessons and after her lesson Miss Albright gave me a little piano lesson. Lois Albright Billingsley was a music teacher and an orchestra conductor. I remember she was billed as "the woman Toscanini." I don't remember much about my lesson except that I liked her and wanted to come back but we moved away soon— again. Later, after we moved, I remember a letter came from her to my mom and dad. It was a message from God. I'm sure it must have been a mimeograph that she sent to everyone religious that she knew. I remember my dad saying that she was a good person but something happened to her mind and she began to think that God was talking to her. It would be approximately ten years after that someone would say the same thing about me.

We lived in White Plains during my second, third and fourth grade years. I went to school in the Greenberg district. I went to school with Negro children for the first time. I enjoyed playing with the group of "colored" kids on the playground. We seemed to play on one particular apparatus for a few days or a week during our recess times and then would move on to another apparatus until we wore it out, I guess. I liked my friends and I sat with them at the lunch table, but it seems that in the classroom one day I showed another side of my belief system.

There was a quiet girl named Alberta whose skin was very dark. Her hair was always done up in little braids. One day when we were doing a craft project in class Bruce Lederer asked Alberta for a pair of scissors or some such thing. After she passed them to him he said, "Thank you." After she had walked away I said to him, "You say thank you—to Alberta?" He just said, "Sure, why not?" I don't know what I was thinking. Why did I consider her to be less than worthy? Was it her blackness, her backwardness, her girlhood? Was I mimicking someone else who had spoken disparagingly of her? I don't know, but I do know that I said thank you to Alberta next time I was called upon to do so. That must have been my third or fourth grade year.

Before we moved away from White Plains a black family associated themselves with our church, the church that met in the YMCA chapel. The Littlejohns lived in a neighborhood that wasn't far from ours and, since they didn't have a car, they rode to church with us. We had a station wagon so my brother and I were elected to ride in the back. Their two kids, Charles and Phyllis (I think) were younger than I. Mr. Littlejohn didn't have a high paying job; they had a decent little house but not much furniture and no TV. I remember once when we dropped by their house other than church time and he was working in his yard, wearing a rope for a belt. I understand the kids did well and went into professions.

Dad worked at that time for the international division of General Electric. He had worked for G.E. since before I was born, in different departments and divisions but now, with International G.E., he had to take some trips out of the country—to Mexico, to Puerto Rico and once, for more than a month, to South America. That time it seemed like dad was gone forever. But when he came back he had quite a few stories and pictures: he always got slides made of his rolls of film. I was proud when he came to my school one day and showed my class a slide show of Mexico and South America. As he was standing behind the screen, setting it up, a girl turned to me and said, "Your daddy's tall."

Right before my dad left on one of those trips my mom got her driver's license—finally. She had been trying off and on for years but always got so nervous she would fail the driving test. Finally, nervous or not, she passed. It was just in time because if she hadn't passed the car would have been parked in the driveway the whole time and we would have had to depend on others or walk. The first Sunday night after that she drove us to church. It was winter. We went to church in Nyack at that time; we had to drive North on the East side of the Hudson River and then cross on the Tappan Zee bridge. I think that was supposed to be the longest bridge in the world in some way, form or fashion. Well, when we left church the roads had iced up. And we had to drive across an iced up "longest bridge in the world." And she had to deal with two boys, oblivious to her anxiety, fighting and wrestling in the back of the car. I take it back, one of us was not oblivious to her anxiety; when we pulled into the garage my younger brother Charlie said, "Good job Mom."

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Photo of Josephus Aloysius (alias Joseph Perry) by John Randall Moody
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