Thursday, October 6, 2011

My oldest student

I met Morrie Ludwig when he took a screenwriting class I taught at UCLA extension back around 2003-04. My classes were online rather than classroom and I found this method far better than giving a lecture and then having a student read some of their pages in a 2-hour frame.

While it meant more work, which ultimately was the reason I left after nearly 3 years as it began to interfere with my projects and at $180 week hardly covered the hours I spent.  One of the differences between classroom and online was that online I was always available to the students, 24/7 as they say. Classroom instructors interacted with their students 2 hours a week.

I spent a lot of time talking to students through email almost every day and had the habit of writing a lot of notes and comments, which I would post on my course page. Students would also post their work for me and for other students to comment on. I still feel this method is much better than classroom in spite of the workload.

Eventually the workload became too much, especially after one semester where I had 15 completed screenplays anywhere from 70 to 130 pages in length. As I tended to give initial notes of anywhere from 4 to 8 pages, it took me a full week to write those notes and taking entire days. It just wasn't worth it anymore.

But back to Morrie. 

He first emailed me that he was having trouble with the online application. It wouldn't accept his birthdate. I wasn't sure what he meant but was surprised to find out the reason.

Morrie was born in 1912 and the computerized application refused to acknowledge the date.

He was 91 years old.

We exchanged emails several times during the first week of the course and then I found out something else about Morrie. He was born in Manitoba within about a hundred and fifty miles from where I was born.

Both of us left Manitoba at the age of 12 as well. I moved with my family to Southern Ontario and Morrie left for San Francisco. Our emails began to talk about our lives, me in my early 50's and he at 91. I found out his wife had passed away and he had always wanted to write a screenplay so he took my course.

Morrie had already written a screenplay on his own, a golf story. And it was pretty good. My course was about writing a new screenplay and he was ready. As the months passed, Morrie moved to Los Angeles to be with some family as he was alone up north. That's when we decided to meet.

I chose the perfect restaurant, Musso and Frank's, which opened in 1919. Known for the movie stars, writers and other celebrities over the years, the restaurant still hangs on to it's traditions and going there is stepping back into history.

We hit it off perfectly, each told stories about our upbringing and started a friendship that would carry on for 3 years. He took one more class and then decided that was enough but by then he moved to a senior development where he bought a very nice 2-bedroom home overlooking an open green space.

I would drive to Palm Desert every two months or so and we would make dinner for his brother and his wife as well as his 75-year old niece who begged him not to reveal her age to her 70-year old former bandleader.

For me it was a time of listening to stories about big bands, adventures and old friends as I sat and listened. Morrie had maculer degeneration in his eyes but he could still fire off a handful of golfballs to within a few feet of the hole from 20 feet away. "It's the feel, not the eyes", he would tell me.

And he wasn't above flirting with a lovely barmaid in Palm Springs, or any woman for that matter. And as I was by far the youngest person around, I got a lot of attention from the ladies in their 80's and 90's. One even showed me her nude painting done when she was thirty.

On one of my trips to my home town in Manitoba, I took a side trip to where Murray grew up to the age of 12. It was an empty field and a stone monument stood near the gravel road.  No cars passed and only a few cows watched me for a moment or two.

This was Bender Hamlet where he was born. It was founded in 1906 and a small group of Jewish settlers attempted to work the land. Unfortunately the land was very poor and rocky and they struggled until many left for Winnipeg. There was no real indication that anyone had every lived there now, just the wind and the rushing sound of poplar tree leaves.

Morrie had funded the plaque back in the 1970's and it still stood there in perfect condition.  I had taken a Sears catalog I found and took a handful of popular leaves as well as some prairie flowers and pressed them in the thick catalog.

Months after I gave the leaves and flowers to Morrie and tears began to fall. He hugged me and said "thank-you". Poplar trees are in the aspen family and their leaves have a distinctive sound that anyone who grew up on the prairies immediately recognized.  It may sound kind of dorky, but it's real.

Later my brother visited Morrie with his family and Morrie again was the gracious host. He even had an "affair" with a lovely woman in her 70's, which he described to me in detail.

As things happen, I went home to Canada for Christmas and when I returned and called Morrie, his phone number was gone. He had passed away at the age of 93, peacefully in his sleep.

Last year, I visited Bender Hamlet again and walked the empty fields while the popular leaves shimmered and sparkled and remembered my friend. A car drove off the road and onto the field, it was a young couple and not knowing I knew who put the plaque up, told me the story that people heard, about a man who paid for the plaque because he was born there. They thought he was famous, because he came from California and they liked that he was born around here.

Then they drove off and left me alone, only the cows watched.

 As we get older, things that didn't mean much when we were young seem to matter more now and the passing of friends and even the sound of leaves seem to be more important than they used to be. I miss Morrie but have a treasure of stories to remember.

You can see a very short video of Morrie by going to Materials and clicking on "Morrie".

Or try this link;