When the All-Star Game is at your ballpark, and you’re the hometown star, that’s a lot of pressure.
He’s talented. He’s prolific. He’s got great stories.
And he is fearless.
This is a guy who has bicycled Route One, circumnavigated Manhattan in a canoe, and climbed to the top of the George Washington Bridge–swaying more than 600 feet above the Hudson.
Rockland has been flouting disaster ever since he was drafted in the 1950s, between the Korean and Vietnam wars. The young medical corpsman was assigned to the locked psychiatric ward at a Navy hospital in Japan. It was full of psychotic sailors and Marines–whose attempts to kill him inspired his 14th book, Navy Crazy, a memoir.
“No war was on, except in that ward,” said Rockland, the only Morristown resident among 22 authors at the festival. He will speak at 10 a.m. in the Parish Hall of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
Morristown High School graduate Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor at Stanford, will speak at 1:45 pm in the Presbyterian Parish House about her upcoming book, A Chosen Exile.
Admission is free to all of Saturday’s talks; tickets to Friday’s keynote by William D. Cohan (The Price of Silence) at the Mayo Performing Arts Center are $20.
On Saturday, Rockland will be fortunate to be there–or anywhere.
In the service, he nearly got pitched off the hospital roof after catching up with a patient who had crawled there through a ventilation shaft.
On another occasion, a troubled Marine clamped Rockland in a choke hold. If a colleague’s bathroom break had lasted a moment or two longer, this weekend’s book festival would have a gaping hole in its roster.
A reviewer for The Star-Ledger was moved by Rockland’s compassion amidst the chaos: “He tried to get through to patients when others didn’t seem to care.”
Memories of one particular group from the ward still haunt Rockland.
“The treatment of gays was very weird,” he told MorristownGreen.com.
“The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ paranoia that came later was mild. Back then, homosexuals were considered not only sick, but criminals. They were given electric shocks, then sent to Leavenworth [prison] for two or three years, and then given dishonorable discharges. It was really disgusting.”
RAY, TEDDY, MARTIN…AND FOUR H-BOMBS
The Bronx native has won a slew of teaching awards at Rutgers, where he is a professor of American studies. (One of his favorite students was Ray Rice, “the nicest kid,” now suspended by the NFL because of a domestic violence controversy.)
Rockland credits his classroom popularity with an eclectic resume that includes stints as a cultural attaché in Argentina and Spain (he is fluent in Spanish), brushes with movie legends Sir David Lean and Meryl Streep, and everyman books that evoke a working-class George Plimpton.
“Too many professors never had any life experiences. They’ve been in school since kindergarten,” Rockland said.
During his diplomatic days in Madrid, he played tour guide to Teddy Kennedy and Martin Luther King; roused from a hotel nap, King greeted Rockland clad in his briefs. Rockland recounts these episodes in An American Diplomat in Franco Spain.
The U.S. Air Force accidentally dropped four hydrogen bombs on that country after a mid-air collision in 1966.
“I’m there trying to get everyone to read Huckleberry Finn…and we’ve dropped H-bombs on them!” Rockland remembered with a hearty laugh.
The nuclear weapons, needless to say, did not detonate.
Spain also was Rockland’s introduction to the world of movie-making. When Dr. Zhivago was filmed there he got a call asking if he could find a four-year-old for the role of Sasha.
“Find one? I’ve got one!” Rockland responded. His son Jeffrey’s big brown eyes sold director David Lean, who cast him as the son of lead actors Omar Sharif and Geraldine Chaplin. Jeffrey Rockland grew up to be a dancer.
Michael Rockland’s shot at film fame came almost a decade later, when he co-starred in a PBS movie, Three Days on Big City Waters, about a Labor Day Weekend canoe expedition from Princeton to New York City. The story was inspired by his book, Snowshoeing Through Sewers, Adventures in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia.
MERYL ‘DIES’ IN HIS DINING ROOM
Rockland also can make the singular claim that Meryl Streep died in his dining room.
The 1998 drama One True Thing, co-starring William Hurt and Renee Zellweger, was filmed in his house, in Morristown’s historic district.
Michael and his wife, Patricia Ard, and their children Kate and Joshua, were displaced for more than six months.
Neighbors could have groused about their own disruptions, but the production company paid to dine at the nearby Kellogg Club, rescuing it from dire financial woes.
“We could have been the villains,” Rockland said. “Instead, we were the heroes who saved the club.”
One True Thing was shot in sequence. After Streep’s character died, she could relax. Rockland kicked back with her on his porch.
“She is as nice as she is supremely talented. That’s a rare combination,” he said of the actress from Bernardsville.
‘GET LOST, LOSER!’
The book festival represents something of a sacred mission for Rockland, who finds it “disgraceful” that Morristown lacks a book shop.
“We’re trying to keep the written word alive,” he said, noting that to his Rutgers students–all digital natives–“books are like old artifacts.”
Sounds like another courageous undertaking. But Rockland said his bravest act was defending his own written words, after 27 publishers rejected his first novel. He persevered, and No. 28 published A Bliss Case to critical acclaim.
“It was like being at the high school dance, and 27 girls tell you, ‘Get lost, loser!’ And suddenly, the prettiest, nicest, smartest girl of all comes to you and tells you she’s secretly in love with you, and asks, ‘Would you dance with me?'” Rockland said.
It’s a lesson he loves teaching his students.
“If there is something you really want to do, do it. Don’t give up.”