In Boston That Night

By Alvin V. Sizer '36 / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

The apartment complex in which I live in Tucson once had a display of old-time cars the director thought would interest us oldsters. It sure interested me. In the display was a 1929 Ford rumble-seater that brought back memories of Brown. Though I am now eighty-seven, I just had to ride in that rumble seat, even if I needed attendants to help me climb aboard.

The Ford reminded me of when I’d ridden in a similar rumble seat on a Friday evening, January 6, 1933, as one of four members of the freshman debate team traveling north to debate Boston Latin School. Frank Handy and William Thompson Jr. rode up front, while Theodore Tannenwald and I shared the rumble. We wore tuxedos. I’d borrowed mine from my brother Harold ’29, a champion debater and Commencement orator whom I was trying to emulate.

The night was cold, but we managed to survive the trip. When we arrived at Boston Latin, we got a big surprise: an audience that packed the auditorium as if a basketball game and not a debate was about to begin. At Brown we debaters rarely had much of an audience, so I felt stage fright when I faced the packed hall.

This was the proposal we debated: “That the United States Government unconditionally cancel all international debts contracted during the World War prior to the signing of the Armistice.”

We had the affirmative side and lost. Ted Tannenwald, summa cum laude at Brown and magna cum laude at Harvard, was our best debater. He would go on to a distinguished law career and a judgeship, but even he couldn’t help us on that January night. I did not help our cause much; my initial presentation was adequate, but my rebuttal failed to make the grade. My failure prompted me to take a public speaking course my sophomore year.

Still, Boston Latin treated our debate as a major event. Programs were printed and handed out, and there was a debate chairman, judges, and even intermission music. I didn’t pay much attention to all that; I was too worried about my delivery. Bill Thompson tells me that our debate was broadcast on radio stations in Boston and Springfield.

What I remember even more vividly than the debate was the ride back to Brown. The night had become bitterly cold, and Ted and I, exposed to the elements in the rumble seat, suffered most. Shivering, we lay flat to pull the rumble seat lid down on top of us. We held on to each other. Before we could get out, someone had to come around and open the lid. Our tuxedos were rumpled, but we made it safely back.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that something else was remarkable about that visit to Boston Latin. As I was looking through old papers and mementos not long after my retirement, I discovered the program from that long-ago debate and found that the young man playing the piano during intermission that night was none other than Leonard Bernstein. He must have been sixteen at the time and was attending Boston Latin on his way to Harvard and then to fame.

A former associate editor of the New Haven Register, Alvin V. Sizer figures he has written about 1,200 newspaper columns. He now writes the Lovin’ Life News column for Arizona Senior World.

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September / October 2004