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I don’t recall exactly how or when I first met John. I know it was in 9th grade; he transferred in that year from a Mt. Vernon school, I believe he said. I assume his dad had gotten a better job or a promotion, so he packed up his family—including little brother, Hank (class of ’59)—and moved to Westport. And I remember the first house they moved to. It was on Hillandale Road in Greens Farms, a stone’s throw from the Post Road. They then moved again once or twice.
Back then, 9th and 10th grades, I regarded John as my best friend. There were many reasons to like him, but I think the reason that resonated with me most was that he was unique. An individual. He didn’t try to be someone else. He didn’t act or dress or say stuff in order to be popular or to improve his chances of belonging to some clique. He was just himself. I liked that.
Then there was that signature cynicism he had for humanity, in general. As far as I could tell back then, he thought everything was a scam and everyone was in on it. I think he was born with that skepticism. (Or maybe most New Yorkers are… :O)
Coming of Age…
So John and I hit it off beginning in 9th grade—he with his motorcycle jacket and I with whatever. (He never had a motorcycle—that was just part of the Otto legend… :O) Soon three more joined our little pack of individualists (maybe “social outcasts” is more accurate): Kit Carson, John Cummings (no photo available) and Brook Gutman. Beginning in that last year of junior high and first year of high school, we had many misadventures together. Here are just a few that I can recall (I am omitting one or two of a more—shall we say—recklessly insane nature… :O)
Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Walcott rematch
One Friday night in May, 1953, John and I were hoofing it across Birchwood Country Club on our way to Carson’s to watch the Rocky Marciano/Jersey Joe Walcott rematch (Marciano had taken the heavyweight title from Jersey Joe the previous September). The Carson residence was on Kings Highway South. We thought we were on time to catch the opening round, but two minutes into Round 1, Marciano had caught Jersey Joe’s jaw with a powerful left hook that put him on the canvas. He did not make the count. The fight we had been looking forward to all week was over! We missed the entire fight!
There is a card game called Bonanza. Similar to Michigan Rummy. I do not recall how we began playing this game but we did and this little tradition lasted quite a while. We would gather on a Friday or Saturday night at one of our houses (usually coincident with a parent’s night out)—snacks and 3.2% liquid refreshment ready to hand. Mostly it was the five of us, but there were occasional guests sitting in. Len Eskey was one and Tyler Smith may have been another. There were others I can’t now recall.
The Bonanza card game featured a circular board with pie-shaped slices surrounding the center representing various cards and combinations of cards in the deck. We played the game with poker chips, but you could play with coins, as well. If betting was involved, it wasn’t much (who had any money back then…?). In any case it was great fun to while away a weekend night. I especially remember the excitement that took hold of Kit Carson when he held the Ace of Spades: “And the Ace!“, he would announce while sweeping up the chips, often getting to his feet, as if Publisher’s Clearing House had just knocked on the front door with a TV crew in the background…
Swimming at Saugatuck Reservoir
Of course swimming was prohibited in the reservoir. Apparently we didn’t read the sign that day. With nothing else to do one day, we decided to go for a swim in the reservoir—out to that little island in the northern end that we could easily make from the eastern side. We must have parked somewhere along Newtown Turnpike. We brought a deck of cards and sandwiches which we floated out on an inner tube. And so, on a pleasant sunny afternoon, John, Kit and I—and either Cummings or Gutman—swam out to the island to have our lunch and play a few hands of Pinochle.
A night with Count Basie
One weekend night John and I and a couple of others (it might have been Mike Beattie, class of ’54) ventured into the Big Apple to hear Count Basie (or was it Duke Ellington?, I forget). We took the train, as I recall. Little did I know or expect that John was going to introduce me on that night to the wonders of the Sloe Gin Fizz… :O) And after a couple of those the only thing I can now remember is standing outside a stall in the men’s room watching/hearing John puke his guts up into a toilet. I think I may have done likewise a moment later. Anyway, we all somehow got home safely from that adventure in the Big City, maybe a little more experienced and a little wiser (or maybe not the latter…)
And then there was that 1954 talent show. John got 2nd or 3rd Prize and Sandra Hardy got one or the other. I cannot recall who got First Place unless it was David Blundell for his version of something only one other human could possibly sing: Mario Lanza… :O) As for John’s performance, who cannot remember that electrifying accordion rendition of Malaguena—a composition clearly written for guitar…?
As for my part I had organized a quartet for the event:
- John Manning Tenor
- George Clifford Lead tenor
- Chuck Banks Baritone
- Kit Carson Bass
When there was nothing else to do on a weekend—a rainy, non-beach day, for example—we would jump in the car and set out not having a destination in mind! How did we do that? By taking the first left, then the first right, then the first left, and so forth. Not one of us ever came close to predicting where we wound up.
Post high school
After a year or so at Staples, John and I saw less of each other. We remained friends, just didn’t spend as much time together. Part of it was making new friends but part of it was work. After school John started working at the Food Fair on the Post Road across the street from Mitchell’s. Later he worked at the Clam Box and I took his stock boy job at the Food Fair.
Years later I learned from John that he and Orrin MacLeod began hanging around together either in high school or afterward. Same with Sandy Mack (class of ’56).
After high school there was a year of college for me and I forget what John did in the ’55 – ’56 school year. The next thing I knew John had enlisted in the US Army and found himself overseas in southern France. In the summer of 1956—realizing that I had not a clue about a future career—I quit college, enlisted in the US Air Force and found myself, likewise, in France. (And there we were, the two of us, standing together against the imperialist designs of Nikita Khrushchev on western Europe. Thank God we were there at that perilous time in history…)
In 1958 my parents told me they’d been contacted by the Ottingers: their son, John, was in France and—when informed that I was in France, also—wanted to look me up. We finally did connect with some difficulty using military communications (there was no email and no cell phones back then…). We agreed to meet in Paris one weekend. I do recall making plans to get together. However, try as I have repeatedly, I confessed to John that I could not remember a single moment of that reunion. Did we have fun in the City of Lights and Women, John (heh, heh)?…:O) Evidently I had plunged into Alcoholic Blottoland head first while John—who could recall some of it—was better able to hold his liquor.
After discharge from the USAF I learned from someone that John was in college studying journalism in Wisconsin. But that weekend in Paris was our last contact until John’s 2005 pre-reunion phone call to me in New Hampshire.
50th Reunion and after
In the months running up to our 50th reunion, John and I recommenced our old friendship by email and occasional phone calls. The class will always be indebted to him for helping track down so many “lost” classmates. I discussed this with him at length and, as I recall, we made contact in the end with all but five:
- Ethel Follett Not a clue
- Brook Gutman I think we traced him to Portland, OR, but had no address
- Sandra Hardy No clue
- Sandy Lawson No clue
- Judy Weisman I wrote to her in the Boston area but no reply
By the way I had to borrow John’s yearbook in order to get the portrait photos for this blog. I have no idea what became of my yearbook.
John and I held different political viewpoints: he was liberal and I was libertarian/conservative. Despite these differences I cannot recall a single word exchanged in anger over some political issue. We simply respected each other’s positions and avoided political issues for the most part. Once, very recently, he took issue with one or more emails I had sent. Whether deliberate or by accident I cannot recall, but it/they did manage to upset him to the point where he fired off a nastygram about them to me. I apologized for sending them, and the very next day he wrote me an apology back explaining that his meds had taken him “out of his mind”. The incident was then completely forgotten.
We had our last phone call in late March or early April. He told me that he was terminal and we agreed to talk again soon. We didn’t speak in May or June. I didn’t know that he was placed in hospice in mid-April. I was about to call him over the July 4th weekend. I was three days too late…
Peggy filled me in on how awful his last two and one-half months were at the nursing home. In hindsight I had two wishes for my old friend, John, at the end:
- That his landing could have been softer
- That he could have read these messages and seen some of the affection and admiration his classmates had for him
John ran an online forum, or bulletin board, about COPD: the disease that took his life. It talked about symptoms, treatment, where to buy medications, and so on. He told me where to go to buy meds overseas rather than pay the exorbitant prices we pay here in the US. On July 1 the forum’s co-administrator posted a message re John’s passing that you can read here, as well as other messages from fellow members of his COPD circle.
I am going to end my thoughts with the online post just mentioned. It sums up pretty well the feelings of most who knew John in adult life:
It is with great sadness that we must tell you all that John Ottinger passed peacefully today at around 5PM with his wife, Peggy, holding his hand.
John loved life, loved helping people but his love for Peggy and Peggy for John seemed to be the greatest love which is how it should be. It has been a long and difficult road for them both the last few years. [We] are sad that it has come to an end but grateful that John’s difficult journey is now over.
Our hearts and thoughts are with Peggy and their family now. We will always remember John for all that he did for so many people and the many friends he made on this forum [who] will miss him. May he rest in peace. He won’t be forgotten.
It brings me no pleasure knowing that I may be the last one of our little group standing:
- Kit Carson Died in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, 2002, of unknown cause.
- John Cummings Killed when struck by a car in the late Fifties while raking leaves outside his South Compo home by a DUI Westport resident.
- John Ottinger Died of complications from emphysema, July 1, 2014.
- Brook Gutman Fled Westport after graduation initially, I think, to Newtown, CT, to “become a farmer”. I think we traced his last address to Portland, OR. Living status: unknown.
- George (“Cliff”) Clifford By the grace of God (and a few surgical miracles) still here and still scribbling.
Farewell, John Boy. The world is now a less interesting place, my friend. I shall miss you greatly…
—Your old buddy, Cliff
July 12, 2014