October 5, 2022

A View from My Porch: 50 Years — A Retrospective

Photo by Tetiana Shyshkina on Unsplash.

Editor’s Note: We send warmest congratulations to our longtime contributor Tom Gotowka and his wife Christina on their Golden Wedding anniversary.

Christina and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary this past July 22nd, and that’s gold. 

In preparation for the event, I spent some time reminiscing about those years, and I am sharing some of my thoughts in this “View,” and I hope, not much to her dismay. As I reconsider that half century, I also reflect on the political and environmental factors that had an impact on us. One of my reviewers has said that the essay is a bit maudlin, but E. F. Watermelon has ceased operations and “Fifty” requires more than Connecticut’s finest chocolates.

Hence, this “View”.

We met as undergraduates at the University at Buffalo. I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but I have a vague recollection of being erudite and charming. The new University President, Martin Meyerson, had vowed to make Buffalo the “Berkeley of the East,” meaning its intellectual equal. 

We were near the end of the Sixties era, and almost past a decade that had been marked by extreme unrest due to the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the assassinations of JFK, MLK, Jr., and RFK. 

Dion sang “Abraham, Martin and John”, and included Lincoln in his tribute to the memory of the four murdered American leaders, who had such a profound influence on civil rights. (N.B., “Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?” makes four.)  

In early-1965, and now as the elected President; Lyndon Johnson escalated Vietnam “hostilities” with a sustained and relentless bombing campaign, and followed it with an endless deployment of ground forces. 

By 1968, his “Operation Rolling Thunder” had dropped an estimated 643,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam. On one mission, war hero John McCain’s A-4 was shot down. He was seriously injured in the crash, captured by the North Vietnamese, and remained a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton” for over five years. 

A common protest chant during “Rolling Thunder” was: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Piling on, Arlo Guthrie had published Alice’s Restaurant” in 1967; which wasn’t really about littering in Stockbridge. Mass

Vietnam also generated a rise in draft resistance; and we entered a university that was a hotbed of protest and dissent. In that manner, Meyerson fulfilled his “Berkeley of the East” goal; — i.e., Berkeley also had a history of activism and revolution layered on its academic excellence. 

Tragically, the new decade had just started when, on May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine students. The “Kent State Massacre”, as it will always be known, triggered a nationwide student strike and forced hundreds of colleges and universities to shut down, many for the reminder of the term.

A year later, NPR’s “All Things Considered”, in its first-ever broadcast on May 3, 1971, covered the more than 20,000 protesters who gathered in D.C. to demonstrate against the Vietnam WarTheir 24 minute “sound portrait” of what was happening on the ground was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2017. 

Curricula Vitae:

Christina had been at the “3 Days of Peace and Music” in Woodstock; and, of course, drove a vintage red VW Beetle convertible. 

She wore Birkenstocks or clogs, but I wore Weejuns. She grew up on Long Island’s north shore, on Gnarled Hollow Road in East Setauket; and I in the “lakes district” of Western New York. (See: https://lymeline.com/2021/02/a-view-from-my-porch-the-marquis-groucho-sam-and-me/). 

She was a Yankees fan, so we could never objectively discuss baseball. 

We were both educated in parochial schools from first through twelfth grades. Immediately after high school, she was educated as a dental hygienist, and planned to practice part time to support the first four years of college expenses. 

 Remarkably, she bowled a “three hundred game” in Phys. Ed. while a dental hygiene student at what is now SUNY at Farmingdale. Unfortunately for bowling fans, she did not pursue the sport beyond the amateur level. 

She loved folk music and had an acoustic guitar. It would eventually become clear to me that Joan Baez would always be her touchstone.

 We may have originally connected because I know lyrics, even the most obscure. She had never met a man who could recite Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” extemporaneously … and in its entirety. Who would have guessed then how prophetic “I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government” would be in our future lives?

She set some boundaries early in our relationship and told me that she planned to youth-hostel her way through Europe on a EuroRail Pass for the upcoming summer before our respective graduate programs. 

Having fulfilled that plan, she entered the School of Graduate Education on her return from Europe; but for me, it was the School of Dental Medicine. 

Courting in Buffalo:

Buffalo is not Boston; it may be more Chicago. However, I’d argue that for college kids or grad students like us, it was a reasonable facsimile. When we began our college lives, over 50,000 students from both public and private collegiate institutions were living in the city. We both lived in Buffalo’s North Park neighborhood, which had a real “town and gown” business and residential mix. 

We dated, and much of that centered on campus events. We saw Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the “Yippies” (i.e., the Youth International Party), who appeared before a crowd of over a thousand just a month after his conviction in the “Chicago Eight” conspiracy trial. We also saw Mary Travers, performing solo, and the Chuck Mangione “Friends and Love” concert. 

I introduced her to the mainstays of the local cuisine; “beef on weck”, “pizza and wings”, and Ted’s hot dogs with the “works”. Date movies were “Midnight Cowboy” and “Butch and Sundance”. 

The University did have its own “Buffalo Nine”, a group of Vietnam War protesters arrested together in 1968 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Buffalo. 

My family was very impressed with Christina. Coincidentally, Robert Redford’s “Gatsby” had just begun production with abundant publicity. So, their expectations for the north shore were high; and I told them that East Setauket wasn’t really that far from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “West Egg”. I admit that there was some concern that this young and blonde Long Island woman might be just a little too exotic for a kid from Western New York.

Anna Mae, et al:

I was eventually invited to meet the Jenkins family. Her mother, Anna Mae, was a gracious Yankee woman and a single parent who raised five children. Her home was filled with antiques. Anna Mae was a force in the local parish, and a touch imperious. 

She was very welcoming, but I couldn’t stop thinking of her as Katharine Hepburn in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. I learned early in that week that she would not argue, but relied on a world-class “withering look” to express disagreement.

Christina’s siblings included her oldest brother, Ross; who was “Longines Sports Timing”, and focused wholly on winter sports. Nancy was a nurse, Dean was a teacher, and Gregory, the youngest, was on his way to “boarding school”. I also met her very close friends, the O’Sheas, who hosted many of the pre-wedding events. My impression was that Dr. O’ provided occasional counsel, while Mrs. O’ served as another big sister.

The Wedding:

About a month before our nuptials, five men were arrested in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington. 

The break-in had no impact on wedding preparations. What almost did, however, was my best man’s arrival on Thursday. Scott could have been the twin brother of Jim Morrison, lead singer for the “Doors”. Anna Mae asked me whether she should get the barber in town to stop by; he was a member of the parish and would be happy to do so. We deliberated and went with “Scott-as is”.

The wedding ceremony was held in the new St. James Church. Christina had planned on the original historic chapel, which dated back to the founding of the parish in 1889; but that wasn’t possible with what proved to be a crowd on the altar 

The groom and groomsmen all wore traditional morning suits on that very humid 95-degree day. The bride and her attendants were all cool and beautiful. Anna Mae had style and status, so we had three concelebrants on the altar; two for the home team and one for the visitors. Father Nesslin, for the visitors, was my AP physics teacher at the Mindszenty School. 

The ceremony was accompanied by the choir’s performance of four songs:

  • Pete Seeger’s “I Can See a New Day”;
  • Tom Rush’s “The Circle Game”;
  • Paul Stookey’s “The Wedding Song”;
  • Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”.

As I recall, well over 100 guests then celebrated under a large tent on the Jenkins’ lawn.

The Hopkins Inn:

Ours could not be an extended honeymoon. I was in the final months of completing requirements for graduation and board exams; and Christina was wrapping up her thesis. 

A friend recommended the Hopkins Inn on Lake Waramaug, in Litchfield County. The Inn was run by an Austrian family, and was an excellent choice. Lake Waramaug was only a few miles from Henry Kissinger’s future home in the Kent area; and was the site for some of the qualifying rowing trials for the 1972 Munich Olympic games

Tragically, the Munich Olympics, which began in late August, were overshadowed by the September 5th “Munich Massacre” of Israeli athletes.

We returned to Buffalo and consolidated living arrangements, completed academic requirements, and eventually shipped out to the Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Md. 

Before saying goodbye to Buffalo, we saw the Grateful Dead at the “Aud”; — “Trucking, up to Buffalo”; and stopped in at the Parkside Candy lunch counter for coffee, unaware at the time that it was their lemonade, which would become famous when Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) ordered it while sitting with Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) in “The Natural.”

Anchors Aweigh:

“Pax River” was a very big deal. It headquartered the Naval Air Systems Command, and the multi-services Test Pilot School. Several billion dollars of fighter and surveillance aircraft were housed on the base. The jet jockeys (i.e., the Naval Aviators) were all “Mavericks” at a time when Tom Cruise was still getting ready for “Risky Business.”

The Pax River Naval Hospital was first-rate and a few years in that environment convinced me that “solo practice” would never be a good fit. 

Christina had a horse in Maryland; a grey gelding hunter. I had no experience with horses, so I began training as an apprentice horse groom. Christina had her thesis typed and delivered on time to the University, taught in one of the local schools, and competed in show jumping competitions in Maryland and Virginia. 

Watergate:

Richard Nixon and Watergate dominated the news between the wedding and our transition to Pax River. In 1972, Nixon’s VP, Spiro T. Agnew, was investigated on suspicion of criminal conspiracy and extortion, and resigned from office. Nixon replaced him with House Republican leader Gerald Ford. At the same time, The Washington Post set the standard for investigative journalism with Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged coverage of the break-in. 

The Senate Watergate Committee opened hearings on May 17, 1973. Note that the 1976 movie about Watergate, “All the President’s Men”, would be the third time that Redford intersected with our relationship.

Old Lyme neighbor, the honorable Lowell Weicker, then the outspoken 41-year-old freshman Connecticut senator, was chosen as one of seven members of the Senate Select Committee to investigate Watergate.

He wrote in 1973 that “For this senator, Watergate is not a whodunit; it is a documented, proven attack on laws, institutions and principles”; and also disclosed a White House memo from 1969 in which presidential aide Jeb Stuart Magruder suggested using the IRS to harass unfriendly news organizations.

On Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon ended his presidency and departed with his family in a helicopter from the White House lawn. Within minutes, Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States. Thirty days later, President Ford pardoned Nixon 

I still remember how, when I left the Naval Hospital that Friday afternoon, Nixon’s picture was still displayed as Commander-in-Chief. However, on Monday morning, President Ford’s picture was on display. I assume that this bit of housekeeping had somehow been duplicated at military and other government facilities across the globe. Of course, Nixon had done a TV broadcast the night before his exit.

I completed my active duty and we moved to Connecticut, where Christina had an academic appointment at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, and I had secured a staff appointment at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford.

Saint Francis Hospital:

My job was to manage a large grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the development of a hospital-based group dental practice; and recruit the members of the group. Late in my hospital tenure, I received an appointment as the Robert Wood Johnson Scholar, at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Eventually, I moved on to Aetna Health Plans. 

The Other 36 Years:

I am embarrassed to say that the above chronicle reminds me of the punchline of a joke that I often shared with one of my daughters. It goes, “That’s enough about me, what do you think of my hair”?

We bought our first home in West Simsbury at the base of Onion Mountain. We also managed to develop a division of responsibilities that has lasted the entirety of our marriage. Christina is strategy, I am tactics; or alternatively, “outside” versus “inside”.  

We had five beautiful and much-too-adventurous children over the course of our marriage. Those births all relied on the Lamaze Method, which includes psychological and physical preparation by the mother and her “coach” as a means of suppressing pain and enabling delivery without drugs. I believe that Lamaze and other types of “natural childbirth” are less popular today than with our contemporaries. 

We were lucky. We matured professionally in an era when academic growth opportunities were available and well-funded. The two of us were awarded joint-fellowships at the University of Washington in Seattle. 

Christina received an advanced degree in Human Development and Gerontology from the University of Saint Joseph, and that became the focus of her teaching career. In her quest, she was able to spend a summer in China with Yale, participate in the Women’s Health and Healing Program at Berkeley, and the Hawaii Great Teachers’ Conference. China yielded several “Silk Road Revisited” presentations and a gallery exhibition of some amazing photography. 

She was passionate about teaching; and I had been told at college gatherings by at least one student and a few of her faculty colleagues that her style was energetic and entertaining. She was willing to mentor junior members of the faculty and young women, who may have been the first in their family to enter college. I also learned that her handouts and student contracts were legendary. (“Will this all be on the test?”) 

We also co-authored a paper on healthcare costs that was published in the American Journal of Public Health. 

I don’t know whether she meets whatever the accepted definition of “feminist” is, but I do know that she is a very strong woman; and when appropriate, is outspoken in her beliefs.  We have raised three daughters who are also strong; and two sons who are very comfortable with women in more senior or equivalent positions. 

With a growing family, we built a larger home, also in West Simsbury, and turned our attention to introducing the kids to higher education options and some thoughts about careers.

The Turn of the Century:

There was widespread fear as we approached 2000 that computer systems would shut down. The “Y2K Bug” was a potential computer problem associated with the longstanding programming method of formatting and storing calendar years as the final two digits of the year; which  couldn’t be used after the year 1999 (e.g. “00” could be either 2000 or 1900, etc.).

Fortunately, there was no generalized systems failure, possibly due to the pre-emptive action of government and private industry information technology experts. 

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four commercial airliners and used them in suicide attacks on four strategic sites in the United States; and led to the still-ongoing Global War on Terrorism. Eleven days after the attacks, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge was appointed as the first Director of the Office of Homeland Security in the White House.

The Homeland Security Act was passed by Congress in Nov., 2002, and the Department of Homeland Security became a stand-alone, cabinet-level department.

On July 31, 2022 Ayman al-Zawahiri, known as the planner of “Nine-Eleven” and successor to Osama bin Laden, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan.

On to the Shore:

We left West Simsbury for the Connecticut shore and built a home on the exact “footprint” of a 1930s cape that sat on the banks of the Duck River on Library Lane. We were drawn to the site because it reminded us of our children’s favorite childhood book, “Wind in the Willows”.

Here’s a bit of Mole’s first conversation with Ratty: “You must think me very rude; but all this is so new to me. This is a river and you really live by the river? What a jolly life!” Ratty responded “It’s my world, and I don’t want any other.”

This relocation would prove to be fortuitous. About a dozen Halloweens ago, the boffins at Yale installed a new heart in my chest with all the connections. Christina kept me focused and my “eyes on the prize” through that grueling period leading to the procedure; after which I was inducted into the highly exclusive and very demanding society of the immuno-suppressed. I still like “long walks on the beach”, but mostly on cloudy days or late in the afternoon; and I’ll often wear a mask in public places, even in the off-season. 

We were here for the Federal Railroad Association’s “half-baked and harebrained” (to quote US Sen. Richard Blumenthal) proposal to improve service by rerouting its Northeast Corridor through Old Lyme’s historic district; and the subsequent resident and bipartisan protest by elected officials, which eventually resulted in the withdrawal of the proposal.

Christina is now a retired professor, and some of her passion for teaching has shifted to her studio and her glorious gardens. She, with other like-minded women also comprise the “Flo-Gris Garden Gang”; (I believe that they still are all women); and without much fanfare, maintain the extensive museum gardens.

Another passion is fitness She has become a “gym rat” and always knows “how many steps?”. She is in two book clubs

Some Thoughts:

I still know all of the lines to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, but like to experiment with occasional changes in sequence. Our daughters sent us back to the Hopkins for our anniversary, which is still outstanding and they’ve installed air conditioning. I want to acknowledge that Christina is nearly 400 days younger than I and her youthful energy and outlook has contributed to our relationship. 

I believe that if she has any regret, it would be her failure to negotiate détente with the local gang of rogue white-tailed deer, who regularly raid her gardens. 

I was inspired to draft this retrospective by a similar piece that was done by some ‘Englisher’ several hundred years ago; and coincidentally, also at the tail-end of a plague. Unfortunately, and unlike my essay, his work ended,

A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
T
he sun, for sorrow, will not show his head …
For never was a story of more woe
Than this [of Juliet and her Romeo.] 

In closing, I’ll cite Churchill’s comments on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: “It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides.”

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Thomas D. Gotowka.

Tom Gotowka

 

 About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK. A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.

Comments

  1. Cathy Walsh says

    Wishing many years of health and happiness to this amazing couple! I look forward to these View articles and this one is simply fabulous!

  2. Happy Anniversary Tom and Christina! Thank you for sharing your history so delightfully. I am so glad that you both came to Old Lyme and that you continue to share your “View” with us in LymeLine. Baseball aside, five children, great careers, and the ability to shape minds and influence business while being attentive and active in your community, are golden. Cheers!

  3. Margaret O'Shea says

    That was just wonderful in every way…..thank you….Peg O’Shea

  4. Beautifully captured milestones!

  5. Morgan Regan says

    Beautiful, Mr. Gotowka. Cheers to you and Christina!
    With love, The Regans

  6. Congratulations! What a beautiful story.

  7. Scott Morrison says

    Well let me begin by wishing such an amazing couple a heartfelt Happy 50th Anniversary.

    Having been the best man I remember the early days of their relationship and the article reminded me of the many adventures Tom and I had in high school and during our college years. I transferred to Cardinal Mindszenty High School in October of my senior year. Tom and I became fast friends and lived just a block from each other. We had a mutual interest in cars. But our friendship extended far beyond that. It was a great time to grow up with lots of freedom which fostered a number of adventures. A trip to Boston and Cape Cod where we stopped at a little country restaurant called the Ojala Farm run by a couple of sisters who served delicious meals. Later, on their honeymoon, Tom sent a postcard of the Ojala Farm saying ‘I can’t say I wish you were here.’ Another example of his rich understated humor which I appreciated throughout our forays. A trip to the Hamptons one summer break after Tom and Christina got together where she and a few friends had rented a cottage and we went to visit for the better part of a week. A trip to Watkins Glen to watch auto racing for the weekend embracing our penchant for cars. Thinking back on us just jumping in the car and driving from western New York to The Glen or Long Island or Cape Cod on a whim brings me great joy.

    In high school we had our own version of the Merry Pranksters. The student council president, senior class president, senior class treasurer – Tom, and the new kid in school- me, managed to duplicate the master keys to the school and made several late night visits where we conducted mischief – not vandalism – and it drove the priests crazy largely because they lived adjacent to the school and never caught us in the act. It was great fun and the four of us formed a strong bond.

    Tom and Christina were very goal oriented and formed a great pair. I was not so much so and got a high draft lottery number so I dropped out of college and hitchhiked around the U.S. for a few years. Tom and Christina sent me a book called ‘The Hitchhikers’ and said they hoped I wasn’t doing that 10 years later, although I actually did manage to do that occasionally.

    Their wedding ceremony was lovely and the reception was superb. Held at the home of one of Christina’s dentist employers it was a marvelous celebration with a loving and convivial atmosphere. A superb Long Island setting. And yes, it was quite warm that day, but no one complained.

    Our lives took very different directions and mine carried me to the west coast and Washington state. Tom and Christina spent a summer in Seattle on a study program and, unfortunately, I was working in Nevada doing mineral exploration that summer.

    Years later I would visit them in their lovely home outside of Hartford, Connecticut after some training I was doing in Hartford. That was our last face to face encounter oh so many years ago.

    This recent article resonated in many ways, but one in particular; I never knew that Tom could recite the lyrics to Subterranean Homesick Blues.

    So here’s to 50 plus years of various experiences with Tom and Christina. It’s been a terrific journey.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The interwoven 2 stories, personal and political history, really made it fascinating and was so well written. Congratulations to the Gotowka’s!