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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

U.S. Tour Exposes Writer to a Myriad of Languages

U.S. Tour Exposes Writer to a Myriad of Languages
(Appearing in Univ. of Bridgeport U.B. Roundtable publication, March)
Professor Mike Lauterborn

 In Spring 2003, while browsing titles at a library book sale, I came across John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”, documenting the noted author’s three-month adventure traveling around the perimeter of the United States with his dog. It was such a great tale that I was inspired to replicate the journey, using his book as my atlas, and write a pseudo sequel called “Chasing Charley”. Buying a van and setting off in September the same year, I rolled along 17,000 miles of road and through 35 states, meeting people from all walks of life during the journey. I can tell you that it was an education and great opportunity to be exposed to different languages, accents and commentaries about language. I have spotlighted a few of those exposures here.
On the front end of the trip, while staying with friends in Meriden, New Hampshire, I scanned the local Valley News, enjoying a column by Tom Hill titled “Half A Bubble Off Plumb”. Hill dwelled on the amazing flexibility of the English language, comparing it to “a ground-hugging sports car that can handle any turn and twist in the road.” He pointed to colorful phrases like fancy-schmancy, hanky-panky, heebie-jeebie and mumbo jumbo.
I never thought of Bar Harbor, Maine, as a crossroads of the world, but when I stopped at the Opera House cafĂ©, I heard a Southern “y’all”, some Cotswolds-based British and Deutsche that hailed from Freiburg, Germany.
Stepping over the border into New Brunswick, Canada, the small TV in my van carried only French programming, but it was an Acadian French that had been boiled down and slathered thick like jam on a croissant. While I had studied the language in high school under the tutelage of Madame Josset, it was difficult for me to follow.
Visiting the Onondaga Nation Territory in western New York, I encountered a pair of native teachers who were developing a curriculum for Onondaga language instruction. To that point, the language had been unwritten, so they were creating standards to represent oral words. A common greeting I learned was “Nya wenha Skannon” (pronounced Nya-way-ha Skan-noo), which means, “I’m thankful for the light within you.”
 At celebrated Niagara Falls, I paused to take in the view, standing alongside people of the world with skin colored black, brown, white and yellow. While the languages we all spoke were different, the look of awe on our faces at the wondrous sight was universal.
Stopping at the Crow reservation in Montana, near the site of General George Custer’s infamous Last Stand, I had a chance to sit down with a park ranger who spoke about the battle but also the structure of the Crow leadership there, which has remained unchanged for centuries. The Crow Agency, as they call it, is headed by a Chairman, and he must speak the Crow language as a qualification of his position.
In San Francisco, I climbed the noted landmark Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill and, here again, found a melting pot of people mingling in the open-roofed viewing platform. Germans, French, Canadians, Irish, New Zealanders, all come to take in the view and chatter excitedly in their own brogues.
Barreling through the Mojave Desert, I passed through Navajo territory and stopped at the Route 66 Diner in Sanders, Arizona. There I met a medicine man and his daughter Cherelyne. She taught me the Navajo words for “hello” (yateh, pronounced ya-tay) and “goodbye” (goonah, pronounced go-oh-nah).
Enjoying some broiled catfish at a place called Cajun Tales near the Sabine River Bridge in Louisiana, I enjoyed hearing the colorful conversation of a family of Cajuns sitting nearby. Remarked my waitress, “They must be from the swamp. I heard the name Cletus and I ain’t heard that in a long time.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, an open-air market offered a wide array of wares from taffy and pecans to baskets and apparel. While many of the vendors were black Americans, there were standouts like a Filipina woman named Virginia, who offered fish-shaped pendants. She taught me to say “take care” (inga at) in her native language.
There were many more encounters, too numerous to retell here, but the point is that there’s a rainbow of varied language and dialects all around us, even in our every day travels. Listen for it, savor it and celebrate the nuances that make us the unique citizens of the world that we are.

Resident Reflections: Leonard Everett Fisher

Resident Reflections: Leonard Everett Fisher
By Mike Lauterborn
(Appeared 2/16 in the Westport News)

A WWII mapmaker who made his living illustrating, painting and teaching, Leonard Everett Fisher, 86, has lived a full life dotted with celebrity encounters and secret projects. He recently reflected on his life’s highlights and recalled a few Westport memories from the studio of his Twin Bridge Acres Road home.

“I was born in the Bronx in June 1924, and, at 8 or 9, moved to Sea Gate in Brooklyn, America’s first gated community, where the family had initially summered,” said Fisher.

His father, Benjamin, was a marine designer who worked most of his life for the navy designing submarines at the Lake Torpedo Works in Bridgeport. Simon Lake was the inventor of the even-keel diving submarine. Ben’s initial job was the U.S.S. Arizona, the battleship that was sunk at Pearl Harbor. Though only 20 at the time, he designed small parts like gangways, anchor chains and capstans. He went on to design the hulls of battleships and cruisers in navy yards all over the U.S.

Fisher’s mom, Ray, was a bookkeeper in NYC initially, then a homemaker.

“Our Sea Gate home was right on the water – the confluence of the lower New York bay and the Atlantic Ocean, across from Staten Island and next to Norton’s Point lighthouse,” he said. “Its red glow would shine in our living room and make it look like hell.”

Fisher attended Abraham Lincoln High School and majored in art. He was 16 when he graduated and went to Brooklyn College. In Dec. 1942, at age 18, he was recruited by the army as a mapmaker and, for the next three years, was with a very elite unit that mapped all the WWII invasions – Anzio, southern France, part of Normandy, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the invasion of Japan.

“I was in operations as a young non-com, and very appropriately placed based on my skill set, which included the drafting of maps, knowledge of several languages and a background in geology,” he said. “The work was very top secret and clandestine and my boss was General George Marshall.”

Fisher was discharged in Jan. 1946 and began attending Yale Arts School, pursuing a degree in painting. He got a B.F.A. in 1949, an M.F.A. in 1950 and, incredibly, a Pulitzer Prize in painting that same year, about which he was notified via telegram from then President Eisenhower.

In 1952, at which time he was a dean at a small arts school, he married Margery Meskin and they had three children, raising them initially in New Haven. In 1957, they ultimately landed in Westport at their current home and, over the next 50 years, Fisher illustrated books for young readers, painted and taught.

As a book illustrator, he traveled all over the country lecturing, and illustrated 260 books, 90 of which he also wrote. He also had a number of memorable meetings with heads of state like former President Clinton and other dignitaries.

Fisher said his painting was less public, with sporadic gallery shows.

“It’s been a lucky life. I never had to earn a living in any other way but the arts,” he concluded.

Lost opportunity 1957
“When we first moved to Westport, several things struck us about the area. The first was our immediate property. Behind our acre, there were 165 acres of just forest. There was game in there like wild turkey, grouse and rabbits. A gentleman named Raymond Ely owned the land and asked us if we would like to buy another acre so that no one would build directly behind us. It was pretty cheap, about $6,000, but we figured because it was an incline and rocky, no one would ever build there, so we passed… and they built. Then the whole area went.”

Main Street, late 50’s
“It was a pleasure to walk down the main and visit all the stores, which were individually owned – Greenberg’s Department Store, Welch’s Hardware Store, etc. On the south corner of Main and the Post Road, there was a Chinese restaurant called West Lake. The name reflected an area in China where the owner was born… and he was educated at Harvard. There was also a movie house and, next to it, a stationery shop owned by Max Kaplan which eventually evolved into Max’s Art Supplies, which is a landmark now for most regional artists.”

Waterfront fun
“Coming from a waterside upbringing, I immediately felt right at home here. I don’t recall that Compo Beach was ever crowded and the Longshore Country Club was private. The latter wasn’t bought by the town until the early 60’s and became a facility that our kids used all the time during the summer, for boating and swimming. I golfed there, too – albeit a short career. The pro was George Buck and I would take my lesson from him before teeing off.”

“There was little traffic in those days, no one creeping up behind you blowing the horn, no cell phones and the largest private car was a station wagon. Newton Turnpike, which runs by our area, was a turnpike with no cars on it. It was more or less a two-lane, paved country back road. Now it’s got bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

Westport’s transformation
“We settled here because of the school system and because it seemed to be a quiet, pretty, comfortable place. I didn’t initially realize it was an arts community with a number of celebrated artists. This fascinated me. I came here as an academic to the heartland of commercial illustration. The arts focus waxed and waned as professionals died off or went west and show biz people started moving in like Paul Newman, Jack Klugman, Robert Redford and Joanne Woodward. Their presence made Westport a destination, more so than the artists, who kept a low profile. This improved real estate values which attracted Wall Streeters, all sorts of entrepreneurs and corporate executives. Now there’s been a revival of the arts here.”

Institutional foundations
“In the late 80’s, I was president of the Board of Trustees of the Westport Library, which was then establishing its new and current location. Back in 1965, I was also a founding member of the Westport-Weston Arts Council, which later morphed into the Westport Arts Center.”