Klein, Emile B.
As the crow flies, Albert Appel’s farm in Elmer, New Jersey is a scant 30 miles from Philadelphia, his urban birthplace. He began as a city boy, but for almost seven decades now he’s been chief cook and bottle washer of his own promised land.
He’s a man who respects and identifies with children, especially the rabble rousers. “They should have the experience of doing it wrong and it didn’t kill you. It keeps you from being really angry at everybody.” So many children, including his own, have gone off from this farm to play music, make art, grow and cook good food, craft things with their hands, and try out life for themselves. He’s is so proud of the children, and the music.
Albert Appel was born between the world wars, when everything was changing, especially for the Jews. His parents gave their son violin lessons, and sent him to a fine academic high school (where, he says, he mostly slept). While other high-achieving sons of immigrants were flocking into business and the professions, young Albert was moved, instead, by a spirit of practical idealism.
So, when it was time for him to set out into the world, Albert Appel left home with a dream in his pocket and a violin. His dream was to become a farmer, and become a farmer he did. But it was the violin that changed everything.
While World War II was raging, Albert studied and worked other people’s land until, at the age of 22, he was able to buy his own farm. He and his first wife, a young refugee pianist, started a family. Friends brought their children to the farm to play music and taste the freedom of the countryside. In 1960 the idea came to him: Start a summer music and arts camp for children. So Albert Appel took a chicken farm and a violin and built a world.
Now, Albert is in his 10th decade of life. The summer camp has grown into a year-round music, arts, and farm center. He lives with his wife across the country road. He reads, listens to music, plays with kittens, remembers stories, forgets names. “I know I’m privileged,” he says. “I’ve gotten to do what I like.”
He says other people do all the work now. As for him, he plays his violin every day in a big, sunny room. He’s not practicing. He’s living. He says the music has another kind of feeling when you’ve heard it so many times before. The violin is his old friend, the music a pentimento of sounds, more beautiful for all the memories it carries.
Albert Appel is a man who knows how to grow a dream. You work hard, you make it as beautiful as you can, and you invite everyone. And you have a really good time. Appel Farm: Albert Appel built it, and the people came.
Klein, Emile B.
You could say Ken Nerger was born unlucky. The ups and downs of fortune have written themselves in his dark eyes, his soft, hoarse voice ravaged by throat cancer, and the calm, even the way he tells his story – unflinchingly and with humor.
Ken was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. It’s never easy growing up different and Ken remembers clearly the brutality of the other children toward someone weaker than themselves. The hardship in his early life gave him strength and taught him compassion. Growing up, he and his grandmother hand-raised orphaned baby raccoons.
As an adult, Ken’s two careers couldn’t be more different. He found a love for art and antiquities and began his adult life by moving to New York City to run a gallery that catered to the rich and famous. When that job turned sour, he quickly adapted to his second career at a chemical processing plant, working outside in dangerous conditions. But, in both worlds Ken found strength and humility and remained a man of compassion. The most important thing for him was always to be able to feed his family. Bad luck still waited for him.
Ken developed throat cancer and it nearly killed him. His voice chokes up when he describes being unable to eat and looking in the mirror to find a skeleton looking back. He survived because he could not bear to leave his wife and children. However, the chemotherapy left him with difficulty forming new memories and so after a lifetime defined by hard work, he can no longer keep a steady job to support his family. Now, his wife has two jobs to make ends meet, their house is about to be foreclosed on, and the family subsists on food-stamps. The hardest part for Ken is that now, after all this time, there is nothing he can do.
Ken can look back on the past, but, with his memory disorder, the present and future will always be uncertain for him and it’s hard to rebuild a life on uncertainty. “I dream and I know what I’d like,” he says, “But I don’t know how to get there.”
His voice is sad for a moment, but then he laughs. A life of mixed fortune has left him too strong to be beaten down for long.
Klein, Emile B.
A long time ago, Grant Harris told a fib about a stud horse being dead. Soon afterwards, his prize colt was killed in a freak accident. Call it whatever you want. A strange coincidence. Karma. A lesson from God.
Harris says he got the message.
"That's the price you pay, dumbass, for telling a lie."
Harris is the owner of Cowtown, the oldest weekly rodeo in America, located in, of all places, New Jersey.
This old cowboy sleeps well at night staying honest and close to the cow-pied earth. "Manure," he says, "is just water and grass and a pinch of salt."
Since 1955, people have been coming to Cowtown in Salem County, N.J., about 120 miles south of New York, to watch cowboys astride bucking horses and bulls, and to look for bargains at the flea market, which dates to the '20s.
Salem County remains largely farm country. Plenty of city people have been moving here over the years, however, drawn by the open spaces. It can take newcomers a bit to adjust to the ways of agricultural life.
Urban people don't always understand that "you operate tractors even on the weekends," says Harris, or that livestock can occasionally break out of the farm fences and "wind up grazing in your backyard."
The flea market, which Cowtown bills as the original farmer's market, has attracted a diverse group of customers in recent years, with significant numbers of African-American and Latino people browsing the wares.
"People on a budget are looking for bargains," says Harris, who has changed some of his merchandise to suit the changing customer base.
Harris follows his father and grandfather in running Cowtown. He knows from experience that family and business can be a difficult mix. His grandfather, "a born showman," and his father, "a real nuts-and-bolts" kind of guy, were often at odds. Harris himself was kicked out of the house at age 19 by his dad. He joined the rodeo circuit, but found his way back home.
He and his wife, Betsy, live in a comfortable, rustic-themed house at Cowtown, but he confesses he would be just as happy living in the little mobile home they once shared.
Harris is the 13th generation of the family in these parts, going back to the late 1600s. "My people got off the boat in 1690-something," he said. "We've migrated about 10 miles in more than 300 years. We don't get out much."
In fact, he has traveled plenty, including spending a lot of time in New York City, where he has staged rodeos at Madison Square Garden.
But he feels lucky to be near the pasture, rising at 5 a.m. to "saddle up a horse and go tend to cattle." When evening comes, he can relax, bone-tired from an honest day's work. Even on a 21st Century ranch in New Jersey, it's the old cowboy way.
Tannah & Coley Morris
Klein, Emile B.
Light and dark, earth and sky, rain-drenched rich and parched, bone-dry. But these are opposites, with surrounding fields of energy and conjured images and the twins are nothing like that.Rather think of a new shiny quarter, spinning deftly on its incised edge, transforming from two-sided flattened disc into vibrating sphere before your eyes. Now as if by magic, the single coin has become two and then five and then seven, singing swelling harmonies in major chords, chiming to a stained glass gospel climax and finishing hushed, a diminished third. This simple coin with two sides, now lying flat and still against the pavement where it worked itself through an exuberant 17-year old’s holey pocket, down a slender, muscled leg and plopped where we find it. Heads or tails? And does it matter?
For Coley and Tannah, there was always the music. It was the binding tie to survive (and thrive) the unnecessary encumbrances children often carry. A family move, a parental split, a shocking discovery of another sibling. But there were a grandmother’s gospel melodies in the early mornings and by drinking deeply at that well, the emotional turmoil from yesterday could be dismissed, if you just believe.
And Tannah does believe. Focused, disciplined and adaptable, she is the stuff that leaders are made of. Her twin brother, Coley, questions. He knows how to control his heart rate, to be present in the moment and draw in a roomful of expectant listeners with his performance. He controls the beat and he is a visionary.
Their voices are akin to their aspirations in timbre and pitch. Shall I be a teacher? Shall I be a performer? Questions of traveling and making music, of church and college, of the wide world of friends beyond the parochial compartments of New Jersey. And still the glue is the music, the music and the unsung director behind the scenes, their mother.
The twins spoke the language of music and shared rhythm without words long before the days of toddling and crawling on soft rugs and all throughout the early white-faced days of self restraint in school and self consciousness, thanking silently some probable unseen intelligence that they were not alone, that the world was finally beautiful and large and they were two and that two could stand as one.