Tuesday, October 11, 2011

As I Remember Him: An Appreciation of Lou Brennan


Editor's Note: These pages previously recorded the bare bones of Lou Brennan's biography. It was replete with facts any competent researcher could uncover in the public record. But no mere biography, however detailed, can capture the man. This is an attempt to flesh out a portrait of him.

      After several years of living in Turkey, my family and I arrived in Croton. Turkey is one vast archaeological treasure trove whose prehistory had fascinated me. I determined to find out more about Westchester's past.
      I met Lou Brennan through a book, one he had written. It was No Stone Unturned: An Almanac of American Pre-history, and it was breathtakingly fascinating.
      Here was scientific information written in prose honed to a dry, hard brilliance. His style was clear, reasonable, free from flamboyance and unobtrusively studded with appropriate scientific references.
      When I learned from the book that the author was also a Croton journalist who lived in Ossining, I made a point of introducing myself to him at a village meeting.
      "You can't miss him," someone told me. ""Lit or unlit, a pipe is always in his mouth."
      As in his book, he was in person every bit as delighted to impart his excitement with prehistory in the same effortless way and to express his sense of wonder about uncovering the past.

An Arrowhead
Not long afterwards,  on Croton Point my son found an Indian arrowhead, symmetrically beautiful and surprisingly wide--almost an equilateral triangle. We took it to Lou for his identification."That's a 'Manlius broad,'" he said. "It's not originally from this area." He went on to explain how it had been fashioned in the Mohawk Valley and had probably been traded to the Kitchawanck Indians in our area.
      Magically, he created for us a vibrant picture of Indian life as it must have been along the Hudson before the white man came, peopling the landscape with Stone Age flesh-and-blood human beings. His breadth of knowledge was awe-inspiring.
      Lou Brennan was a born teacher who almost missed his calling. I think his proudest days came when Briarcliff College, and later Pace University, added him to the faculty as Professor of Archaeology.
      Unburdened by the doctrinaire training and authoritarianism of the professional archaeologist, Lou Brennan was at liberty to speculate and comment in admirably lucid fashion about the fascinating subject of archaeology.

Lou, the Writer
Lou's writing style had a disarming quality, couched as it was in simple, clear, everyday English. Yet the subtlety of thought was such that readers would find themselves reading slowly and luxuriatingly--savoring the pleasure of a work whose style was polished and whose insights were deep.
      In 1975, as a book publisher, I brought out a collection of nonfiction articles about angling and commissioned Lou Brennan to write a contribution for the volume, The Angler’s Bible. He titled the piece "How Primitive Man Fished" and began it this way:
      "No human aim or endeavor has so stimulated the mind of man, since man had a mind, to the heights, and depths, of its cunning as the capture of fish, lots of fish, a particular species of fish, or even, as with Moby Dick, a special fish.
      "Of course, Moby Dick was a whale, and whales are mammals--but that is a biologist's point of view. Whatever lives in the waters of the earth and gets about them by means of fin and tails falls under the jurisdiction of the Guild of St. Peter, the oldest profession--masculine, that is."
      He went on to introduce a favorite thesis: "The first men to arrive in American from Asia 40,000 years ago, give or take 10,000 years, had to have been fishermen, perhaps of no great skill but certainly of long experience. In lifestyle they were beachcombers, drifting slowly southward along the Pacific shoreline from where Asia and Alaska were once connected by land to, eventually, South America, sustaining themselves almost entirely on the fruits of the sea."
      It was vintage Lou Brennan, calling into play his skills as a writer. He captured the reader's attention with an intriguing “lede”(in the spelling of journalists) and then tinctured the piece with delightful tidbits from his vast store of arcane knowledge. He later wrote other pieces for me on how primitive man hunted and used the atlatl, an ingenious spear-throwing device for a companion volume on the shooting sports.

Lou, the Archaeologist
Entire books have been written describing the aims and objectives of archaeology. Lou Brennan dug, of course, as other archaeologists do, because he was a dedicated scientist. But he also dug out of pity and humility, that the past might live again and be understood, giving meaning to the present and offering hope for the future.
      Thanks to Lou Brennan's industry and astute interpretative powers, much that would have been lost to us in this fast-developing corner of Westchester has been salvaged from oblivion. With his uncanny knowledge of Indian habits, his eagle eye could spot with unerring accuracy aboriginal village sites and their rubble pits--the "Croton Dumps" of prehistory.
      Archaeology was his way of settling the debt that we of the present owe to the unknown peoples of the past who have gone before and who, by the very fact of being here, have imperceptibly changed the way of life and environment we know today.
      We of today draw our conclusions from accidentally encountered artifacts--curiously touching evidence of their presence: a perfectly crafted arrowhead, pristine as the day it was lost; a child's treasured bright garnet bead; a well-worn needle of deer bone. We study these and learn much from them; still we can only wonder about the hopes and dreams of those whose hands touched them long ago..
      Once there were Indians all over this place. Yet the northeastern United States presents special problems for archaeologists in deducing its complex history. The ice sheets of the last glaciation, with changes in sea and river levels, and highly acidic soils, have destroyed the kinds of artifacts that survive in other areas. The resulting archaeological record is often fragmentary and always complicated.
      Thanks to the largely unsung detective work of the Lou Brennans of archaeology, these shadowy peoples of the past have been given a measure of form and substance for us. If we glean anything from archaeological research, it is that we are all in this together.
      Lou's interests were not confined to prehistoric archaeology. At the suggestion of the Tarrytown Historical Society, he excavated the ruins of the gambrel-roofed Requa cottage. Located on the property of the General Foods Technical Center in Tarrytown, it was the only intact tenant farm of the early colonial period to be excavated in the lower Hudson Valley.
      Lou managed to bridge the gap between professional, academically trained archaeologists and avocational archaeologists, and deplored the alienation that sometimes permeated their relationships. He often pointed out that trained nonprofessionals did much of the work of digging and made up most of the membership of state archaeological societies.
      Always questioning and speculating, Lou's enthusiasm to unravel the secrets of the past were infectious. For his Saturday "digs," he assembled a devoted band of acolytes of diverse backgrounds to whom he taught the painstaking techniques of digging, sifting, sorting and interpreting finds. One improbable but dedicated digger was a steelworker who spent weekdays perilously teetering on the skeletons of Manhattan skyscrapers.

Lou, the Person
Lou was an exceedingly modest human being who considered all human beings absurd, including himself. As a journalist, he was not above having his little joke. News items--or even gossip--too hot to handle in traditional fashion made their way into a highly individualistic column bylined "Audax." Many readers assumed the name had its roots in audire, the Latin verb "to hear" or "to listen."
      Lou never explained its derivation, but anyone familiar with Latin would recognize audax as the third declension adjective meaning "bold, daring, courageous--even reckless or rash." From it, we get the English words "audacious" and "audacity." And bold, daring and courageous the column was, often treading on local corns.
      It is interesting to trace the growing presence of Audax on the Croton-Cortlandt News. A June 20, 1957, article entitled "Factional Fights" was signed with the cryptic word "Audax," presumably to show that it was opinion and not reportage. In November, an article was headed, "Audax Explains All." The next month articles titled "Audax Speaking" appeared. The last issue in 1957 carried greetings to Audax's sources: "Happy New Year from Audax to the boys on the corner, the boys in the backroom and the girls on the backyard fence."
      Once the weekly Croton-Cortlandt News was put to bed, Lou could relax. Wednesday nights were given over to bridge. Lou and wife Peg and Hamilton Avenue neighbors Realtor Albert Schatz and his wife, Liz, would alternate in hosting games at their respective homes. The Brennans had introduced Al, then a TV producer, to Liz in 1954. Additional bridge games were also held Saturday nights following dinner together.
      Lou was a lover of the works of the Bard of Avon and actively promoted Croton's annual Shakespeare Festival directed each summer by teacher Fred Blais. That familiarity with the Bard was once demonstrated for Liz Schatz. Searching for the source of a Shakespeare quotation, she mentioned a couple of the key words.
      "Lou identified the quotation as being in Act Two Scene One of As You Like It," she told me. "Off the top of his head, Lou proceeded to recite the entire scene, leading up to the quotation I was seeking:

          "Sweet are the uses of diversity,
          Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
          Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
          And this our life, exempt from pubic haunt,
          Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
          Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
          I would not change it."

      Lou not only named the players and the background of the action, he identified the setting as the Forest of Arden--in reality the same Ardennes forest through which German troops and tanks came crashing in 1944's Battle of the Bulge.
      In his newspaper editorials and in person, Lou was a fierce, emotional champion of the causes in which he believed, one of which was education reform. The late Perry Crawford recalled for me that when he was the head of Croton's Board of Education, Lou was a frequent visitor to his home to discuss issues.
      "He would always sit in the same armchair in our living room. Occasionally, to make a point he would vehemently pound on both arms of the chair with clenched fists. My wife became so concerned about the ability of the chair to withstand such onslaughts she quietly substituted another chair before his next visit."
      Sally West, on the staff of the Croton Free Library, recalled Lou's empathy with children. When she was a Cub Scout den mother, her cub pack became interested in local Indian lore. A friend suggested Lou Brennan as a source.
      "He was wonderful," Ms. West recollected. He had a vast knowledge and suggested many sources. The resulting report on Indian sign language was a great success."
      When Crotonite Evelyn Frankel's son Paul expressed an interest in archaeology, his father, Robert, arranged for Paul to accompany Lou on a dig in Montrose. The first Saturday went swimmingly. Paul found some squirrel bones among the refuse in an Indian kitchen midden and was allowed to keep them.
      Now bitten by the archeology bug, the eager ten-year-old Paul turned up again a week later. This time he made another find, but Lou had to explain to him that the objects were valuable.
      "They have to go to the MALFA museum collection."
      Paul's response was final. "Well, if I can't keep what I find," he said, putting down his trowel, "I'm not going to dig anymore."
      I would occasionally join Lou on a dig--more as an observer than as a participant.  One Saturday, hoping to stimulate my son's interest in archaeology, I brought him to a dig at Twombly's Landing, the site of the present-day Eagle Bay condominiums. By mid-morning, son Jeff's interest had flagged.
      Lou had made an interesting find: tiny flakes of flint no bigger than fingernail clippings. Apparently these were the byproducts of the making of small arrow points for shooting birds. He had painstakingly arranged them in a line on a long two-by-six plank. Just at this moment, my son jumped on the end of the plank like a circus acrobat. The tiny flakes of sharp stone flew up in the air in all directions.
      I would have forgiven Lou had he exploded. Instead, he just bit down harder on his pipe. With a pained expression on his face, he began to look for the tiny flakes all over again.

Final Years
After Croton-Cortlandt News publisher Albert Granovsky fell and broke a thighbone in 1972, he sold the paper to John Mullen, publisher of the Putnam County Courier. Lou continued on as editor.
      Lou's last journalistic hurrah, however, came on November 15, 1973. In a note on the editorial page of the paper, now tabloid sized, at which he had so long labored, he said farewell "after seventeen tumultuous, eventful, historic and satisfying years."
      He wrote: "The temptation to grow maudlin about this long association with a fascinating, unique, attractive and genuinely lovable community should be resisted. As a reporter and editor I have never been maudlin, because I really don't know how to be.
      "Let this be said in parting: I never had an enemy I didn't like, and I never had a friend with whom I did not, on occasion, differ. I have been enormously enriched by my intimate contacts with a variegated and vital population.
      "Memories will not dim as I go on to what, as everyone must know by now is my first love, archaeology." Then he added, "But I'll be seeing you."
      The Croton-Cortlandt News continued publication until 1984, when it gave up the ghost. After a two-year gap in locally reported news, Croton's Charles Nelson began publishing The Gazette in October of 1986.

A Last Goodbye
I can still see him as he was at our last meeting just before he died: alive, lusty, vibrant and excited about his teaching career at Pace University. It was just  before St. Patrick's Day. He had dropped in at my home on Ridge Road to report on his progress on the next book he was writing. It was to be an account of how mankind had spread around the globe from early  beginnings in East Africa. I had convinced him to write a book proposal for such a book, and Macmillan had snapped it up.
      We drank beer and nibbled cheese together while he described his recent activities. He was excited about the coming of spring, for it meant that archaeological digging could resume. The book was going well. And he had just planted peas in his backyard, an annual rite performed by gardeners in the Northeast around St. Patrick's Day.
      As we talked, I reflected that he was an anachronism in modern garb. His sinewy frame and Celtic visage called for leather and buckles, a basket-hilted broadsword at his belt, and a pair of dragoon pistols in his jackboots.
      The board at which we sat was properly bare and brown. But it was a Victorian cottage pine table in our modest kitchen. It should have been a stout oaken tavern table washed by the slops from heavy pewter tankards and worn smooth by muscular sword hands.
      There would have been a huge fireplace and fire over which a dripping roast turned on a spit. To match his always-spirited conversation, Rabelais and Villon would have been our tablemates.
      Although neither of us knew it, it would mark our last goodbye. In the final week of his life, he addressed two historical society meetings in Tarrytown and Ossining on successive nights. At the Ossining meeting, he became particularly nostalgic, harking back in his anecdotes to his years in Ohio. After returning home, he complained of indigestion but attributed it to a hurried dinner of a sandwich and a beer.
      Charon, the aged boatman, came for Lou and ferried him across the Stygian river while he slept that night of March 17, 1983--St. Patrick's Day, of all days. I am sure Lou was at the bow of the vessel looking for a promontory on which earlier arrivals must have camped.
      A week after his death a memorial was held at the Briarcliff campus of Pace University in the very building where he had begun his teaching career. Friends, former students, archaeologists--both professional and amateur--and those who knew him only from his writings came from as far as Maine and the Carolinas in a touching tribute.

No Grave Marker
L. Scott Bailey, publisher and editor of the hard-cover magazine Automobile Quarterly, for whom I once worked, used to call me "Tombstone." The attribution came from my habit of beginning research about a historical figure by visiting that person's grave. The editor thought it peculiar of me to be "communing with the dead," but he misunderstood my motive. Gravestones are an ideal starting point, for they often contain information not available from other sources.
      Had I wanted to begin these reminiscences with a pilgrimage to the grave of Lou Brennan, however, I would have been disappointed. There is no grave, no marker, no stone monument. A dedicated scientist and educator to the end, he willed his body to medical science. It was a characteristic Lou Brennan gesture, and says almost everything there is to know about this wonderful guy.
      It is now nearly 30 years since Lou Brennan left us, the voice of reason that was his stilled forever. The sentient humanism of his writing has been sorely missed, lo these many years. His like will not pass this way again.
      I append a bibliography of Lou Brennan's books. It is my sad duty to report that although his nonfiction works are widely available, not a single Lou Brennan novel is to be found in any library in Westchester.
      The manuscripts of his novels were donated to the library of Ohio University at its Portsmouth campus. His archaeological manuscripts were given to Seton Hall University, whose Museum and Department of Archaeology have long specialized in the early inhabitants of the Hudson and Delaware rivers.
      It has not been easy to grow accustomed to Lou Brennan's absence. No synthesizer has come along in the book world to take his place in communicating the oneness and uniqueness of human history. It is as if a mighty tree has gone down with a great shout upon the hills, leaving a lonesome and empty place against the sky.

 A Louis A. Brennan Bibliography

These Items of Desire. New York: Random House, 1953.
Masque of Virtue. New York: Random House, 1955.
Tree of Arrows. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Original paperbacks
An Affair of Dishonor. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1955.
More Than Flesh. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1957.
Death at Flood Tide. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1958.
The Long Knife. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1960.

No Stone Unturned: An Almanac of American Pre-history. New York: Random House, 1959
The Buried Treasure of Archaeology. New York: Random House, 1964.
American Dawn: A New Model of American Prehistory. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Beginner's Guide to ArchaeologyHarrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1973.
Artifacts of Prehistoric America. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1975.


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