If I had to name two of the most dissimilar people in the world, I don’t think I could do any better than Mr. Parks, my high school mechanical drawing teacher, and Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
And yet these two men, who, to my knowledge never came anywhere near each other in the real world, managed to link up in the three-ring freak factory that I like to call my mind.
I know this doesn’t sound at all logical, but it’ll make sense once I explain myself. Or then again, it may not, and in that case I apologize in advance.
Mr. Parks was a compact, bullet-headed man who spoke in this very sharp, exact tone.
Presumably he was a draftsman in his early life and everything about him was precise and direct—no guesswork, no nonsense, just results.
If he thought you were goofing off, Mr. Parks didn’t hesitate to inform you.
“Hey, you, little guy,” he snapped at one of my diminutive classmates one day. “Sit down and start pushing a pencil because it’s going to be a hot summer.”
One time several guys in the class started making all sorts of stupid noises just to rile up Mr. Parks. And they succeeded.
“I look around,” Mr. Parks loudly declared, “and I see morons!”
Say what you want about Mr. Parks, there was nothing wrong with his eyesight.
But he was also very kind to me. I was hopeless at mechanical drawing and in fact I was only going to Brooklyn Tech because that’s what my father wanted and, as it turned out, he was quite wrong. I had no aptitude for this stuff, but there I was, fiddling with a T-square and a triangle, trying to come up with something before class ended.
Mr. Parks appreciated that I was doing my best and he tried to encourage me whenever he saw signs of improvement.
“Lenihan,” he told me one time, “when I look at your work, I am reminded of that cigarette commercial that says ‘you’ve come a long way, baby.’”
The commercial was for Virginia Slims, a woman’s cigarette that tried to link the burgeoning women’s liberation movement with the inhalation of tar and nicotine.
I remember thinking how strange it was to hear Mr. Parks say the word “baby.”
Hitting the High Note
When I graduated in 1975, Mr. Parks gave me some tremendous advice as he signed my yearbook.
“Just remember,” he told me, “you keep on learning until they carry you off.”
That is so true and so important to remember. Learning doesn’t stop with the diploma. That’s where it begins.
And now here’s were Frank Sinatra comes in. (See? I didn't forget.) A few weeks ago I was listening to Jonathan Schwartz on the Sunday Show and he played a recording of an interview that Sinatra did with Arlene Francis in the Seventies.
In the portion I heard, Frank was talking about the time he met the opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti. The two men admired each other’s work and at some point during their meeting, Frank asked Pavarotti for some advice.
Frank had been having some trouble with a diminuendo—where the singer holds on to a note until it fades out.
Sinatra said this is fairly easy to do if the word you’re singing ends in a vowel, but it becomes more difficult if the word ends in a consonant. So what should he do when the consonants show up?
I laughed at Sinatra’s impersonation. But I was also a bit surprised that Frank Sinatra, who was at the top of his game at this time, was actually asking for help with his singing.
He was Chairman of the Board—he didn’t need help from anybody.
But obviously he did. And he wasn’t ashamed to admit it and he wasn’t reluctant to ask for it.
That’s how the greats in any profession become great and that’s how they stay great—by asking for help, by striving to improve. Or like Mr. Parks noted, they keep on learning to they’re carried off.
And so somewhere in snow-covered regions of my brain that Sinatra quote linked up with long-buried memories of Mr. Parks.
The connection may not make much sense, but it’s a good reminder to shut-a you mouth and keep on learning and you'll come a long way, baby.