It was my great fortune to work with my Mount Tremper neighbor, Pete Dennehy (April 2, 1921 – April 22, 2017) as part of SageArts – A New Voice for Elders. SageArts promotes social inclusion and dignity for elders, pairing them with local artists to collaborate on original songs that define and celebrate their life.
In the home he shared with his beautiful wife, Valerie, Pete – then 95 – and I sat and talked. Before a crackling wood stove, I drank coffee from one of Val’s ceramic cups and listened to Pete for hours. Valerie kept the wood stove stoked, and the room cozy. Pete needed a cane to get around. Valerie was more robust.
After our first meeting, my lack of everyday elders was evident to me. As someone whose father died young, I’ve not had a male elder of note in my life since I was very young. Spending time with Pete, I realized what a lack this was (and is).
As elders do, Pete gave me a broader sense of what life is, and can be. He was open, encouraging, both vulnerable and strong.
Pete was a renowned raconteur, a lifelong teacher and volunteer. His early years included late nights in Harlem in the Thirties, and overseas service as a radio operator on transport planes in World War 2. Subsequently, he acquired several degrees, endured profound loss, and co-raised a couple of families. He talked about them most, still connected, body and soul, to the lives that had sprung from him; details were sharp, love palpable. They were all out in the world, but he was still nurturing them.
Pete struck me as a kind of proto-feminist, a man with a lot of strong women in his life. Like me. He was a teacher. And he could remember and sing at will songs from his youth. Also like me.
Pete often spoke of a friend with whom he’d had adventures in the Thirties. They’d lost touch when he returned from overseas. Pre-war, they would drive from Long Island to the Elks’ Rendezvous in Harlem, and party into the night. Pete could never find out what happened to this guy. He couldn’t let the wonder go. The friend seemed to represent the freest chapter of his life, a youth not misspent. Glory days. I decided to bring them together in a song. That became “At the Elks’ Rendezvous.”
In the song, Pete and this friend meet in the present day, as old men. Pete is bringing his friend up to speed on his life. I did my best to make the song pre-rock n’ roll. With Guy “Fooch” Fischetti on fiddle, and Lou Pappas on bass, we performed it in July 2016 to a packed house for Pete and Valerie and some of his family. I got to introduce him to my son Jack, who was raised without a grandfather.
It was a great day.
Time has now taken both Pete and Val from this world. But one of the great things about song – about art in general – is its ability to outwit time, to suspend or warp it, as in dreams. In “At the Elks’ Rendezvous,” I tried to do that, if only for a few minutes, for my elder and his loved ones.
At the Elks’ Rendezvous
By Robert Burke Warren & Peter Dennehy
Me and you at the Elks’ Rendezvous
In the years before the Second World War
Laughing at the moon, singing a tune
Let’s meet on 133rd Street.
I learned to fly through the battle-scarred sky
A radio man taking boys cross the sand
Casablanca Capri Vesuvius Norquay
And the city of sin that they once called Berlin.
Had to take off my wings
Had to carry a gun
To walk through the streets
And see what we’d done.
I heard you got away with a girl who paid her own way
Did you tell her about me – good ol’ Pete Dennehy?
Now when I hear a sax, we’re riding those old pavement cracks
In my dad’s rumble seat with the world at our feet.
Never had your dad’s dough
But I found love that’s true
And we’re rich in years
Hope the same goes for you.
Bet you’d never guess what I did the best
I taught kids in the schools and I raised no fools
And the family I’ve grown is the best thing I’ve known
We smile through the tears and we laugh at the years.
I’m back from the war
My kids have kids of their own
My wife built a fire
And I made it back home.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.