Wednesday, September 29, 2010
A Small Degree of Separation While Remembering Paul Apel
When I was a youngster growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Richardson Park just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, I used to hang out on the corner with many of the other boys in the neighborhood, hair greased up in a pompadour wearing a leather motorcycle jacket with a switchblade tucked away under the zipper that tightened the cuff of its left sleeve, wearing khaki pants and Keds red ball sneakers playing the part in that otherwise apathetic stultifying America where "Door Gunner" Joe McCarthy and HUAC goons made sure I had no thoughts that might be construed as truly threatening or subversive. We thought we were rebels without a cause, and that was okay because no cause was better than having a cause. Having a cause meant you had to have knowledge as a basis upon which to think seriously about things.
Even with the role I played in order to fit in, I had a sinking feeling there was more to American culture than hanging out on the corner. My evidence could only be found in two places. One place was from the books my father kept, but this merely indicated the raw landscape. Mostly they were books about art and the pictures in them were like little windows into a world that I didn't see while standing on the corner. The other place took the form of a second floor apartment above Starr's Drug Store at the corner of which we hung out. In that apartment lived a man who was about ten or twelve years older than me. In some ways he was like the neighborhood beatnik, though he would have bristled at the comparison. He did have that bohemian aura however. In the late 1960s he was angry that he could no longer be trusted by those in the counter-culture because he was over 30 years old. He knew a lot about art, literature and modern music. He was comfortable and proficient discussing religion, psychology and –– for the times –– subjects as esoteric as cybernetics and media, like radio and television. For example, he first introduced me to Marshall McLuhan's ideas. He became a long time friend throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s when he move with his new wife to Cincinnati, Ohio. His name was Paul Apel.
Paul used to refer often to a friend of his from his own adolescence during the Second World War years while they were living in St. Augustine, Florida. That friend's name was Langston Moffett. Langston's father was also named Langston Moffett, but neither put a "junior"or "senior" after their names. The elder's father was Cleveland Moffett, an author who wrote at least one novel, Through the Wall, published in 1909. His son, Langston Moffett wrote the novel Devil by the Tail, published by Lippincott in 1947. It is largely a novel about binge drinking and may have closely been modeled on the author's own experiences. The novel's main character, Gordon Sullivan, had once been a Paris correspondent for a prominent New York newspaper during those "lost generation" years of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Langston Moffett had been a journalist for the Paris Herald in 1928 and 1929. His father, Cleveland Moffett, had also worked for the same paper when Langston was a child. During Langston's stint with the paper he caroused with notable literary figures from the United States, particularly F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They partied hardy at such Paris hangouts as the Ritz Bar, Chez Bricktop, and the Hotel Crillon. In an article Moffett wrote entitled "Paris: Fun and Frolic" for the Spring 1987 edition of the Lost Generation Journal, he provides a report of the continuation of Scott and Zelda's exploits right after they left Wilmington where they had been living.
In the early 1930s, Langston Moffett returned to the United States, and except for writing the novel cited above, turned to painting and eventually moved to St. Augustine and became a shaker and mover in what had been informally called "the lost art colony" in that city. It was there that the younger Langston Moffett and Paul Apel became friends.
Paul once told me a story, which I had subsequently forgot and about which Paul's widow Carolyn reminded me recently, about how he and Langston were working at a local radio station in St. Augustine –– probably WFOY –– during the Second World War. It had been possible for teenage boys to do radio in those days because the War had created a shortage of grown men. While doing radio there, the two kept hearing stories about this blind kid who was about the same age as Paul and Langston, who attended the nearby Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and who played a mean piano. They wanted to bring this kid on the air and broadcast his extraordinary talents, but the station's managers refused to allow them to bring him into the studios because he was Black and Jim Crow rule was the law of the land in the South. Evidently, however, after Paul and Langston left the station the managers relented. At the very least, Paul and Langston recognized this youngster's talents, which quickly became irresistible enough to give him a break. As it turned out, Paul Apel and Langston Moffett had played a small part in introducing to what would become a growing audience the gift and talents of the future Ray Charles.
These first small degrees of separation began to open the door to that world I had suspected was out there beyond the one imposed upon me by purveyors of mediocrity and pushers of suffocating parochialism, and it was as nearby as that apartment above the neighborhood drugstore where Paul Apel lived among books piled around, a small electric piano and sparse furnishings. Yet for me the world opened up. Here was someone who had known Ray Charles, and whose best friend's father caroused with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Who knows what may have become of me had I not known Paul Apel. If would have been easy for me to end up in prison, or a mental hospital with a future of homelessness ahead of me, given how our world has turned out since the 1960s. Paul encouraged my own artistic endeavors and enabled me to choose to go to college rather than join the Army, for example. In short, Paul Apel saved my life and at least I owe him this small tribute because those small degrees of separation that the world I wished to know was not that far away.