NJ Discover Exclusive: This Interview Should’ve Been a Book-An Evening with PROFESSOR MICHAEL ROCKLAND, 50 Years American Studies, Rutgers, Author, 15 Books, (Including “The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel”), His Conversations with Meryl Streep and Much More. By Calvin Schwartz Jan 13, 2020
RIGHT AWAY; Why should this interview article have been a book? Answer; There is an endless wealth of Americana, history, experience, happenstance, accomplishment, Jersey, fascination, Hollywood, academia, sensibility to Michael Aaron Rockland.
We first met several years ago, when Rutgers Prof Deborah Shuford organized a special event for the Rutgers Alumni Association where the film, ‘One True Thing’ (author Anna Quindlen) starring Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Renee Zellweger (‘Judy’) was being shown.
OUR INTERVIEW: Nearly six hours in his office on Rutgers campus, just off George Street, next to Douglass College, where on January 20, 1969, he was hired as a dean because of his experience in the diplomatic service. This is his special sabbatical year therefore we had all the time in the world to talk.
STYLE: A stream of consciousness. No particular set questions. It just flowed from afternoon to late evening.
TO START, I asked about the iconic movie, ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ directed by the great David Lean. Reason: I knew Michael’s son Jeffrey, then 4 ½, had a prominent role in the movie. He played ‘Sasha,’ Dr. Zhivago’s (Omar Sharif) son. “How did this happen?” Michael smiled. “Jeffrey is grown-up now. Associate Professor of Dance at Kent State University. David Lean called (readying to film Dr. Zhivago in Spain) He asked if I could find a 4 ½ year old American boy. I laughed. I said my son… It wasn’t that Jeffrey wanted to be in a movie. It was thought that because of his looks, he could pass as the child of Omar Sharif and Geraldine Chaplin.”
“Mind if I ask how much Jeffrey got paid for being in a major movie?” “Sure. $26 per day. Today it’s like $200. They paid my wife the same thing to watch over him.”
“I also made my own movie years ago. A buddy movie. Me and Charlie Woolfolk canoed from Princeton to Manhattan. It took four days. Just once we had to take canoe out of water… An indie filmmaker got interested in making a film and we wrote a script and agreed to play ourselves. The title of the film changed from “Four Days on Big City Waters” to “Three Days on Big City Waters” (48 minutes) because the filmmaker, despite a huge grant, was running out of money.” I loved this original idea. “Like who does this!” (https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/35293/ )
“How about a composite life’s journey?” Michael was ready, “Hunter College in the Bronx (now Lehman College) undergraduate. Then I was drafted into the US Navy where I served in Japan as a medic in a locked psychiatric ward for Navy and Marine mental patients–the key group were murderers there for observation by the shrinks who would testify at their trials and suicides (luckily, unsuccessful ones) After Japan to the University of Minnesota Master’s and Doctorate in American Studies. After Minnesota I entered the diplomatic service as a cultural attaché in Argentina and in Spain (as a result I speak and even lecture in Spanish). Next, I was hired as Executive Assistant to the Chancellor of Higher Education here in New Jersey. Then hired as Assistant Dean of Douglass College and, simultaneously founded the American Studies Department where I served as Chair. I was offered the position as head of the Rutgers Newark campus and that was the “fork in the road” as in Robert Frost’s famous poem. I had thought I would eventually be a university president but my decision was to no longer seek political power but, instead to follow my artistic desires to be a writer… I’ve been at Rutgers 51 years. It’s funny, I started here the same day Richard Nixon was sworn in as President on January 20, 1969.”
“Let’s talk about the movie ‘One True Thing.” “So, Calvin, you were there (actually an extra in the scene) for the filming of the Silent Night, Christmas scene. I was there with my daughter… Universal Studios rented our house for six months.” I asked if everything in the house was his in the movie. “The only thing left of ours was the bathtub… They sent two moving trucks to clear out everything… We had over 50 photos, art on the walls. They measured and took video of where all of the pictures were in our house and put them back exactly where they had been after the movie.”
“And the experience, Michael, of your house in a movie?” “It was a year out of our lives… I didn’t write a thing… Ecstasy was talking to Meryl… 21 years ago… No one was supposed to smoke within 50 feet of the house… Once when I went, the crew were dropping cigarettes on my floors and stamping them out…I spoke to the Universal rep, and threatened him with getting an injunction. He walked over to me, our noses basically touched, and he said, “We’ve got more lawyers than you. Don’t do it.” Chills ran up and down… But they did stop smoking in my house… I did demand 24/7 access to keep eye on my house and watch the shooting.”
Earlier Michael mentioned working in Trenton before Rutgers. I was curious. “The decision to leave Trenton government was easy. My job was to sit over public higher education… It was a dirty job. I had to tell someone they were fired, so when the Rutgers call came, I leaped.”
It’s funny. When you’re around academic and literary genius, your mind fires away. All of a sudden, the image of Michael Rockland climbing the George Washington Bridge (he sent me picture) flashed in a couple of eye blinks. “How and why in the world did you climb the bridge?” “It wasn’t planned… It was 2006, before the first edition of my book came out… The towers of the bridge. I had been to the top of the West or New Jersey tower. Now, I wanted to get to the top of the East or New York tower. There was a misunderstanding. As with the New Jersey tower, I hoped to take the elevator. They thought I wanted to climb the tower. I was terrified, but they had assigned four Emergency Service Unit cops to the project and I couldn’t bring myself to say no, so I climbed with them to the top walking on one of the big cables.”
Michael explained that on the very top, predatory birds live. They take off and swoop and pick-up pigeons for their young. Audubon Society protects them.
Michael stopped smiling. “You know, Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the US Airways Flight 1549, which landed in the Hudson River, barely cleared the GWB tower, by 200 feet… They never talk about it and in the movie, they don’t accentuate it.”
I was beginning to understand the necessity of his writing ‘George Washington Bridge-Poetry in Steel.’ As Michael explained, there was never a book about GWB. Many books about the Brooklyn Bridge. He also told about a small plane crash in 1965. A plane out of Teterboro ran out of fuel and crashed landed. Pilots just got broken noses.
“Michael, I’m curious about your time as a Navy medic.” “It was extremely dangerous; my life on the line… Once I was strangled by a big patient… came so close to dying… I was alone and he snuck-up behind me. Fortunately, my colleague came… Once a patient escaped through a ceiling vent. Went to the roof. Was discovered. He came this close (his hands demonstrated) to throwing me off roof. My friend dropped kicked him.”
One of my favorite journalistic and life pastimes is to talk about Rutgers sports; football, basketball, wrestling, soccer. Academia and athletics co-existing and prospering is always a pathway for me. With all my being, I know it works. In Michael, a few feet away, on the other side of his appointed wooden desk, I had a PhD, Chair of American Studies, 51 total years, 15 books written. “Michael, are you following Rutgers Women’s and Men’s basketball. We’re just about to be nationally ranked.” “Of course, I do. Often, I go to games. I met Coach Greg Schiano in his first tour here to interview him.”
Professor Rockland has also been a writer, contributor to several magazines including New Jersey Monthly. Who better than the Chair of American Studies and author of ‘Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike,’ ‘Homes on Wheels,’ ‘Snowshoeing Through Sewers.’
“I met Greg Schiano at 6 AM and stayed until 9 PM at the Hale Center. I wrote a story for Rutgers Magazine. ‘A Day in the Life of Greg Schiano.’ Back then, as we became friends, I got a sideline pass. I don’t think the NCAA likes teachers on the sidelines anymore… I once wrote ‘Away Game’ for New Jersey Monthly. What goes into an away-game.”
Then we took eight minutes to tip-toe around all our aging stories, artificial body parts. What amazed was our cerebral vitality. A septuagenarian and octogenarian blasting away for six hours. Michael did run out to his car for an energy bar. I thrived on his energy, intellect and joie de vivre. Michael’s contention was genetics. I partially agreed, “Manipulation, supplements, diet and massive exercise.”
When I said exercise, Michael mentioned growing up in the Bronx and often walking across the George Washington Bridge. An early beginning to his affectation with the bridge. “Because it was my bridge, I came to see its beauty… The Brooklyn Bridge is 48 years older… Did you know the GWB was finished a year early from original plan? It’s the strongest bridge in the world… Builder wanted to encase the towers in cement then faced in granite. He felt the bridge was unfinished, but built so strongly, it could support a lower deck and even a third deck if they wanted.”
Logically, at this juncture, I asked how he came to write his two books (editions) on the bridge. He loved building things from the time his father bought him an Erector Set. Years back, he went to Morristown Library to research the GWB. There were no books about the bridge. A Rutgers librarian confirmed no books. He joked that some people used to say, “Look where the bridge goes, to New Jersey.”
“How come you wrote a second edition?” “Bridgegate and Governor Christie and soon a Supreme Court case and the Tyler Clementi story which became international.”
Somehow, we started talking about President Kennedy. Different theories floated back and forth. “When I was in Madrid, I spent the day alone with Ted Kennedy and, by the way, a similar day with Dr. Martin Luther King. All of this is in my book, “An American Diplomat in Franco Spain.” (You Tube Interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vr_Yt0z2S6E ) I was still very much a political animal then and thought Teddy was going to be president. Chappaquiddick ended Teddy ‘s presidential plans and my desire to join his staff if and when I left the diplomatic service.”
I smiled, shook my head in disbelief. All of a sudden, the title for this interview surfaced. “This should be a book. That’s part of the title. There is so much to you. How do I reel this in? Time for two more questions. One-word answers.” Time was closing in on 10 PM.
“Living or Dead, who would you like to have dinner with?” A milli-second. “Mark Twain.”
“Before I leave this earth, I won’t be satisfied until I……” Another milli-second. “To see my wife, children, grandchildren happy in their lives.”
A few promises, things to do, housekeeping items, and a brief LinkedIn tutorial (I asked Michael to join me on LinkedIn exploits) and we hugged to say goodbye.
This morning I got a thank-you email from Michael Rockland.
It signed off, “Un abrazo (Spanish for “a hug”) “
Calvin Schwartz 1-11-20
PS: His latest novel, ‘Married to Hitler’ is due out soon. It has little to do with Hitler.
MICHAEL ROCKLAND CONTACT INFO:
https://soundcloud.com/leonard-lopate/michael-aaron-rockland-on-his-latest-book-the-george-washington-bridge-poetry-in-steel-1920 Michael’s appearance on Leonard Lopate Podcast Thursday January 9, 2020