This is one of those “milestone” birthdays. 75. And I’m happy to still be here during this second year of the pandemic. Breakthrough COVID caught me. It landed me in the hospital but couldn’t hold me. I’m still hare and hope to be for several more adventurous circuits around the sun. I’m planning on this “Milestone” not being memorable. Perhaps a pizza, some ice cream with a little hot fudge and a glass of red wine. No candles, I learned more than half a century ago that candles on a hot pizza do not end well. But I have had a few birthdays that were memorable. To wit…
Seven years old: When I turned 7 my mother went to “The Party Box” and bought a pirate birthday party kit. The party was in the basement the weekend before my birthday, but my folks had a surprise for me on my birthday as well. When I got up on the morning, I found that pop had painted, in bright red letters, across the living room wall “Happy Birthday Richard!” Pop had planned to repaint the living room so why not give me a surprise? That red message bled through every coat of paint pop could come up with. He gave up and went to wallpaper. It was hideous so that was soon covered by paneling. I sold the house 60 years later, after mom died. I wish I could have been there when the new owners pulled down the paneling. I know they removed it because I saw it shattered in a construction dumpster when I drove by once after selling it.
Seventeen years old: When I turned 17 my parents had planned a surprise party at my favorite steak house. It was a real treat because we couldn’t often afford a steak dinner. They invited several friends. It was a Thursday night, a school night. Near the end of the meal, I dropped my dessert spoon into my ice cream and said, “the President’s going to die.” Everyone looked at me. I don’t know why I said it, it seemed absurd. It was embarrassing. But it just came out. After a brief discussion of how (He was flying to Texas, perhaps a plane wreck), my parents ordered their coffee and said we best forget it. I opened my presents, and we went home. The next morning, I had an appointment at the DMV.
In 1963 Jersey teens got their learners’ permit at 17. I was one of the youngest kids in my senior class so one of the last behind the wheel. Pop took off work that Friday to drive me to the DMV for my written test. On the way home he gave me my first practical behind the wheel instruction. It was exciting and terrifying, mostly terrifying. Pop was not the most patient of instructors.
Pop got me to school around lunch time, I proudly showed off the permit that my friends already had. During American History the Principal, Mr. Leach, came on the PA system. “Boys and girls, there is something you need to hear.” He put the mic in front of the radio speaker. At first it was confusing, talk of shots, Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas Governor John Connally, and Parkland Hospital again. We were confused. Mrs. Carr asked “Did someone say the president had been shot?” Then a voice came out of the confusion telling us President Kennedy was dead, assassinated, in Dallas. We could hear crying in the background coming over the mic in the school office.
Between classes word spread about my birthday dinner and my prediction. Usually walking down high school halls was a jostle but, on this Friday, November 22, 1963, I had a clear path. My fellow students parted like the Red Sea to let me pass. I felt so alone.
Fifty Years Old: I was teaching journalism at Tirana (Albania) University. I had been the Fulbright professor the year before and was asked to stay on when the Fulbright grant ended. The International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX, I ended up working for IREX for 15 years) paid my salary and expenses. Earlier in the semester I copied a New York Times interview that Jane Perlez had with President Berisha and distributed the first half to my class. The reporter was trying to get information without slamming the door to future access to the President. The President was trying to keep some items from the reporter while portraying an image of openness. I asked students to role play the conclusion of the interview.
Even though Communism had fallen a few years earlier there was at least one student in each class on a “special scholarship.” His (in this case) job was to report anti-government propaganda that may be being taught in the classroom. He reported me to a Democratic Party official, denouncing me for implying the President was not always open with the press. I had implied he was guilty of obfuscation! Following the denouncement, I was called in for a series of interviews that bordered on interrogations, The University Rector warned me that I may be disciplined.
On my 50th birthday my students had gotten a cake and some balloons. They were throwing a little party for me before class. (The only time students were ever in class early.) Just as class was supposed to start an official walked into the room and handed me a letter with all sorts of stamps and seals. I read enough Albanian to know what it said. I was being dismissed, ordered to leave the campus immediately. While I could read it, I handed it to one of my students to “translate.” He read it aloud. I packed up my notes, and since the class was being held off-campus in the Soros Media Center, and not on campus, I took my time and had one last piece of cake before I left. Most of my students followed me out the door to a nearby coffee bar where we had an animated discussion of press and academic freedom as coffee time stretched into beer time.
It is one thing to fire a professor in front of a class; it is another thing to fire a professor in front of a journalism class when many of the students were working at newspapers. Within the next few days, I was in every paper in Tirana. My favorite headline was “Is A Fired American Professor Eligible for Social Insurance?” There was also some “fake news.” One student (the one who denounced me) published an interview with me that I never gave. It was designed to make me look like a radical leftist. I congratulated him on his ability to catch my cadence and style while pointing out that the interview was completely fabricated.
Another paper reported that I had been detained and deported. I read this while sitting in an Albania café having Turkish coffee with friends. Turns out it was another American, but the paper heard that an American was deported and who else would it be?
The students pressed the dean, rector and Minister of Education. The officials said it was not political, but a problem with paperwork. I did not have a valid contract after my Fulbright grant expired. My enterprising journalists students dug more deeply. They reported that none of the visiting professors had a valid contract, not the Peace Corps volunteers teaching English, not the Fulbright professors, not even the Turkish exchange professors. As a result, the University had to fire ALL the foreign professors EXCEPT my wife, Suzi, who was not funded by any “program” like Fulbright, or Peace Corps. She was a direct hire in the English Department. Apparently, she had a contract, although she had never seen or signed it. The education minister told the press “This is nothing against the McClears, Mrs. McClear is still teaching.” This whole thing created a minor diplomatic incident. The Ambassador invited me in for a discussion and called me “her troublesome professor.” The Embassy’s first secretary suggested that I do an interview with a “friendly” paper. His idea of friendly may have been misplaced. The final question was “Do you think you were fired for political reasons?” I answered in both Albanian and English so there would be no misunderstanding. “Nuk e di, I don’t know.” The paper published the answer as “no koment.” The editor covered his butt with the first secretary saying “It was translated incorrectly.”
“But he answered in Albanian.”
This was in November. By the end of the Christmas holidays contracts had been arranged for all of the Peace Corps and Turkish professors. The paperwork was never worked out for me and another troublesome professor, the Fulbrighter teaching rule of law. While I had no contract with the University, I did have a contract with IREX so continued to teach off campus funded by IREX with help from the Soros Foundation. I had better attendance after the firing even though the students weren’t getting University credit.
Ten years later, for my 60th, I got a birthday basket of flowers, delivered through one of those telegraphic floral services, from my Albanian teaching associate reminding of my birthday 10 years before.