Editor’s Note: A few days ago, we lost folk legend Pete Seeger, an American original. I am lucky to have heard from Imperial Youth Review contributor Lynn McSweeney. She sent me this anecdote about meeting Pete during her teen years. I’m honored that we can remember this man through her words.
My Encounter with Pete Seeger by Lynn McSweeney
Yonkers Raceway in 1972 or ’73, a boiling hot almost-summer’s day. A political/civic event commemorating who-remembers-what Yonkers’ anniversary, taking place on a hastily-erected raw-wood stage on the racetracks, with speeches, awards, and entertainers to break it up. I was there to represent my Catholic high school, slated to receive a scholastic award for history or maybe citizenship from the mayor. After arriving by bus, I’d been taken in hand by sweating, polyester-suited local political flacks and parked in a very low-rent “waiting room” – orange molded-plastic seats, lots of inner windows, cooled only slightly by dusty, slow-moving ceiling fans. The bookies’ office? Itching beneath a slinky burgundy mini-dress, sporting pantyhose way too hot for the day and sky-high platform heels (the nuns had sternly told me to “dress nicely”), I stewed there in my own juices. I was nervous about going out to the public arena, nervous that the other kid from my school, a junior I’d dated one time and one time only, hadn’t yet showed up (and never did!), nervous to see that the other honorees trickling in from several public schools were dressed in super-funky outfits or in jeans. Their initial once-overs of disdain made it clear I was dressed too “straight,” like a Brady Bunch step-child. All casually/furtively disappeared as a group, presumably to get high, without so much as a nod to me. We’d all seen our handlers guide older, nicely-suited representatives of commerce or politics to another, evidently air-conditioned room, but our room had the advantage of no supervision. Hence the escape of the hipper kids, and my own unobserved solitude. Then this grey-bearded older guy in head-to-toe denim and a fisherman’s cap was ushered in next to me to wait till we were called for. He had brought along some long-necked instrument in a battered case. The politicians were outside, bloviating; we could hear them over the loudspeaker. The old guy in bum’s (or young people’s) clothing glanced over at me and said “So, what are you in for, kid?” as if we were both two jaded jail-birds waiting for our bookings, at which I smiled and answered. “Then you’re interested in history?” I told him yes, but didn’t think the books they had us read at school were telling the complete story, and that I dipped into the public library to read more widely. He just kept asking ever more open-ended questions, volunteering nothing of himself. I hinted to him that I was a socialist, dropping the names of Engels and Marx rather self-importantly. I felt calmer by the minute, flattered by his attention. Our conversation was interrupted by the loud-speaker: “Our next guest: Pete Seeger!” I knew who Pete Seeger was, of course – I listened to Pacifica Radio, which ran his old public service blurb “Que Lindo El Parque Elysian” continually – but had never seen a one of his albums (my parents hated the guy), so had no clue as to his appearance. I was therefore flabbergasted when the old bum stood up, smiled apologetically, and drawled “Well, that means I gotta go.” I next heard him introduce himself over the loudspeaker from the stage. If memory serves, among the songs he sang were “If I Had a Hammer” and “Guantanamera.” Later, right after I was handed my award by Mayor Albert DelBello, nerves hit me again, and I tripped and fell rather spectacularly down the entire flight of the platform’s steps in my platform shoes. Like an umbrella inverted by strong wind, the skirt of my dress flew up over my waist in front of the vast bleacher-seated audience. I twisted my ankle as one six-inch heel tore right off. The mayor, in mid-shake with the next high school award recipient, instead turned, disconcerted, and reached down, offering a hand. I shook my head and fled, the broken shoe held close to my chest. Back at the bookies’ office, a kind young studly fireman fixed it, while clearly enjoying those blushes caused by both my own inadvertent flashing and his blatant flirting. Which involved his fitting the repaired shoe on personally, like I was Cinderella. As luck had it, he was also a part-time shoe repairman, a gallant one. I later saw Pete several times playing at the free concerts held in Untermeyer’s Park, across from which I lived. Never spoke to him again, though. He sure knew how to be a dad, even to a nervous high-schooler he’d never met before. Maybe if we’d spent two minutes more conversing, I’d have chilled out enough to have soldiered through that brief ceremony without a hitch. Or maybe not. Even Pete Seeger couldn’t perform miracles. Despite his best efforts to row me towards Clear Waters, I was Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy of adolescence. But thanks to meeting him, that day’s memory is forever burnished by his kindness, rather than tarnished by the angst of youthful humiliation. And it could have been worse: I would forever remain grateful that my missing classmate from school turned out to be a no-show.”