Judgement Day at the RV Park

Judge not, lest you be judged.  —  The Bible

First let me say that the story you are about to read is being told to you in a non-judgmental way.  I’m only telling it as I saw it.  Simple as that.  Do unto others…that’s what I say.  I’m as open-minded as most good liberals are.  I do not judge people by their looks or their actions, but if I do, it’s mostly by their actions, that’s all.  And maybe by the weird color of their hair or the number of tats.  Hey, live and let live, that’s what I say.

We were only forty-two miles from home.  It wasn’t terra incognita but the road was one we had driven only a few times before so it was basically unknown to us.

The RV park was beside a babbling brook (it really did babble), but the really nice spots were back-ins and not pull-throughs.  We were on our maiden voyage to try out our new little camper.  Its called an R-Pod and it’s about as cute as a Junior Varsity Cheerleader, or maybe even a Prom Queen.  I wasn’t used to backing the thing in any size space so we chose a pull-through.  No fuss, no headache.

On one side of the park was a large field of newly mown hay.  On the other side, beyond the aforementioned babbling brook, was the road that led north to Canada.  On the way to Canada was a Native American Casino.  I had a strong feeling that most of the cars were going to the gambling mecca of upstate New York.  Those stuffed in the cars were in a hurry to drop the tokens into the slots or lose big at the Blackjack table.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  “Whatever floats your boat”.  That’s what I say.

We unhitched and leveled the trailer, then chocked the wheels and opened her up to air out from the long, slow drive from our home.  And that’s when we started to camp.

Many of you readers don’t know me so let me point out some things about my experience:  I have been camping since I was five.  I’ve hiked the High Peaks, X-country skied, snowshoed frozen lakes and kayaked waters both sweet and smooth and rough and wavy.  I’ve been to Alaska, the Last Frontier, where I did some mountaineering for a few days.  I’ve rock climbed in the Gunks and canoed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta from Cooperstown to Bainbridge (about seventy-five miles, and let me tell you…).

Bottom line here is that I’m no stranger to tents and sleeping bags, but this RV camping was a new experience for me.  However, I’m a quick study if I do say so myself, so if I can climb the big boys in Alaska, then I can handle the trailer thing.  When we bought it, the dealer tried to explain the difference between black water and drinking water.  I was gazing at the puffy cumulus clouds when he gave us the details but I was too busy trying to see if the clouds made funny shapes like Idaho or (God forbid) Florida.  The dealer interrupted me as he handed me the keys.

“Good luck,” he said, looking at me like I was from New Jersey or some other strange place.

I looked at the keys, the R-Pod and the car.

“Hey, aren’t we supposed to have the trailer hooked up to the car or something?” I asked.  He seemed to hesitate a tad and just stared at me.  Maybe he’s Canadian or whatever and doesn’t understand what I’m asking, I thought.

And there’s nothing wrong with being Canadian just so long they know what horse they’re saddled to, if you catch my meaning.

While he explained how to attach to the car, I watched the teenage girl riding her lawn mower across the road.  I figured I’d pick up on the finer points later on when I needed to.

We drove off.

So here we are in this RV park.  Being as I’m so accustomed to solo wilderness experiences  (I once went off the trail ((on purpose)) at the Bronx Zoo), I felt crowded in by the big newer models.  Our R-pod looked like a VW Beetle in a parking lot of 18-wheelers.

I took a walk around the loop drive to check out the other units.  Right away I saw the thing that bugs me the most.  It was a “family” trailer and written on the spare tire cover was this:  Hi! We’re the Trouts.  Ken (pilot) & Florence (co-pilot).  With Little Ken, Dottie, Fran, Stevie, Wally and our youngest, Lake.  Oh, and “Puff-Puff” and the “Twinkster” On the road again!!  See ya around the bend.

I really dislike the “billboard” about who was inside the Winnebago.  But, not that there’s anything wrong with all that.  It’s just not where I’m coming from, if you see my point.

Like I said, I’m a very nonjudgmental person.

A few steps further down the lane I saw a “heavy-set” guy sitting in a folding camp chair drinking a Bud Lite (the next day he was in the same chair but he had switched to Miller Lite).  As I passed by, his friend, brother or maybe a cousin was reaching into the storage compartment.

I slowed down and pretended to look out and admire the highway across the babbling brook.  Then I saw that he was pulling something out of storage.  I couldn’t have been more shocked if he had pulled out a dozen illegal migrant workers from Juarez.

Now if you are a person of, shall we say, delicate sensibility, or are easily frightened, then I would advise you to read no further.  You can go back to playing Words With Friends and I would never know, would I?

Not that there’s anything wrong with Words With Friends, mind you.

Ok, so he pulls out, what looks to me like some kind of farm tool.  It’s a lawn mower!  Yes, he pulled a lawn mower.  I know what you’re thinking, but don’t be judgmental.  He began mowing around his trailer!  I had to lean against a tree and try to keep my breakfast down and not vomit all over an empty BBQ pit.

I was promised a “wilderness experience” (I think I read that on the pamphlet) and I get, not a sighting of a warbler, but a guy from Akron or someplace like that mowing his campsite!

I thought about demanding my money back but the thought of re-hitching the R-Pod was too much.

Feeling like I was going to swoon, I went back to our little camper and lay down on the bunk and held my head.

Then it occurred to me that there really wasn’t anything wrong with mowing your campsite.  To each his own, is what I say.

When it came time to go back home, we packed everything quickly.  I tossed the lawn chairs on top of the camper and secured them with a K-Mart bungee cord.  We drove off.

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the big trailers in the distance.  I muttered a few things about the inexperienced, the “pansy” campers, the “Casper Milktoasts” of the wilderness.

I looked back one more time and caught a glimpse of two lawn chairs bouncing along the left shoulder.  A few cars had to swerve to avoid getting hit by the projectiles of aluminum and plastic.

I shook my head in disgust.  Another beginner out of his league.

But there’s nothing really wrong with that.

[This is not my photo and this is not the campground beside the babbling brook.  I take no credit for the image.  I would post my own, but I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how to use my Coolpix.]


Good Neighbors

It looked like rain.

I stood staring out of the sliding door of our downstairs family room.  It was getting gloomier by the minute.  That was fine because my tomato plants needed some water.  I went back into my office and sat at the computer.  I was working on revisions of one of my books and also outlining my next project.  It’s going to be a ghost story set in New York State.  I was struggling with plot lines, character and place names, narrative threads and setting.

Yes, I’m a writer and I’m not ashamed to say it, not at all.  But it still looked like rain.

So I sharpened a few pencils, arranged my scratch pads and organized my felt tip highlighters.  After emptying the pencil sharpener reservoir into my Adirondack birch bark waste basket, I counted the number of yellow legal pads piled on my stack of what I call my “elbow books”–they have to be at my elbow when I write, and checked my copies of “Bipolar Disorder For Dummies”, “Chess For The Complete Idiot” and the interview in the latest issue of Playboy.

I was getting tired and it still looked like rain so I did the only thing that made any sense at the time, I went upstairs to take a nap.

I was lost in a dream about Lady Gaga and I crossed the Pacific Ocean on a raft made of rubber band balls and bales of twine bound together with scarlet yarn that was a foot thick.  Gaga was quite testy when I kept insisting that she not skinny dip so much.  Our only companion on board was an albino Llama.

After an hour (Gaga and I had not yet made it to Hawaii) I was roused from slumber by the chink of metal on stone.  There were voices.  One of them was my wife and the other was our neighbor, the husband of my wife’s very good friend.  They’re summer people and live on our loop road.  They’re from Ohio but we like them anyway.

I slipped a pair of Keds on my feet and went out to see what the noise was about.  They were together in the front yard and what they were doing shocked me to the very marrow of my femur.

We had purchased really nice stone slabs to put in a new walk leading to our front door. The stones were laid out on our yard.  In all honesty, I liked the look of the scattered rocks.  It gave the yard a “rustic” look…not too “Long Island Perfect” if you get my drift.

Anyway, there was my wife and Darcy setting the stones and constructing the walk.  I went back inside to find the bug repellent and came back out.  They had not even noticed me observing them.  Who knows what would have happened if I had gone into town for supplies?  (Earlier I had threatened to visit Saranac Lake to purchase six finishing nails so I could hang my Yankee cap in the workshop.)

Yes, who knows?  They may have finished half the walkway if I hadn’t interfered.

It started to rain and the evening was coming on.  Darcy and his wife (she had arrived earlier and hauled the stone pieces from our driveway),  left for home.  He turned down the Corona beer I offered, saying he wanted to go home and have a White Russian.

I have to admit that he and my wife did a superb job at getting the project underway.  I couldn’t have done a better job myself.

It’s great to have such wonderful neighbors…even if they are from Ohio.


The Man in the Steel Armor: A Monologue

Some would think that it would be a boring existence to stand for decades in a plexiglass box wearing a suit of steel armor.

Let me assure you that it is far from the truth.  I find it fascinating to watch the gawkers, the curious, the historians, the lovers and the caretakers as they stroll past me.  Some stop and begin to read the plaque on the wall beside me until they get bored with the dates, names of those individuals who have owned me over the centuries.

My situation now is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a city called New York, has taken over my care.  Every year they disassemble the plexiglass box and polish me.

The really interesting thing is that none of those who are allowed to touch me know that my spirit and soul–for I was the first knight to wear this suit–still exists inside this steel. I am like a god. I see all and hear all.  The problem is that what I see and hear takes place only in my line of sight.  Whatever the rest of the world is like is beyond my knowledge.


One power I do possess is that I can hear the spoken and even the unspoken words and thoughts of those who enter my arena.  Once I have studied their voices and look into their eyes–be careful how closely you look into my face mask–I can visualize entire lives.

The weight of so many cares can get very heavy at times.

There.  My plexiglass has been wiped clean once again and the doors of the Museum will open now.  What follows are many years of watching and hearing.  I’ll tell it to you in the time frame of a single day.

Here they come, past the statues of St. Thomas Beckett, the tooth of Mary Magdalen and the swords of countless dead soldiers and into this very room where they marvel at the mounted steeds, the jousting lances and shields.  I stand mute to them…but I am ready to hear all.

There’s a family with three children.  Only the boys seem interested in the likes of us.  They pretend that war is full of glory and the sword is a symbol of victory.  Oh, if they only knew the horror of battle and the sickening things a sword can do to another man’s flesh.

There he goes.  I’ve seen him go by me quite a few times now.  He walks on, alone.

A couple stop to read about my history.  She clings to his arm.  He comments how heavy it must have been to wear such a garment as mine.  Hey, sir, I’m still in here and still wearing it!  And, yes it’s heavy.  So heavy I want to let my knees buckle and then I could finally rest; as a pile of newly polished steel.  They walk on, talking of dinner.

There he is again.  He is holding hands with a girl named Judy.  They are laughing…not at me, or any of us, but about how happy they are.  Now.

The old man approaches.  He’s a medieval historian.  He takes notes and studies each plaque of each display.  His plan is to write a book about our lives.  If I could speak to him, I could save him months of time.

There is the young woman again.  She has a sketch pad.  She sits near my case and draws the men on the horses.  I can see that she can render the steeds very well.  She uses bright colors to give life to the banners and flags.  She’s always alone.

He’s coming in again.  This time he’s alone.  His friend Judy is absent.  She separated from him and now to study our histories, he comes here by himself.  His hair is turning gray.

Twelve school children come in.  They clutch tablets and pencils.  They draw us and then make up stories about our adventures.  The teachers’ stand against the wall and watch, wishing they were somewhere else.  The children are excited about our lives.  They don’t realize that only a few of us ever saw battle.  And the battles we saw are best forgotten.  Most of our time was spent drinking and whoring in the villages near the castles.

There’s the man again.  His hair, lacking the rich dark brown hue he had when I first saw him, is now the color of snow.  He’s has a little girl in his hand.  It’s his daughter.  He seems happy on the outside, but is sad in his heart when he gazes at his little child.

Here is the docent.  She is leading a group on a lecture tour of our hall.  I listen and smile.  She’s wrong about most of the facts.  She read many books on our lives, but she wasn’t there to see it, smell it and suffer during it.

The gray-haired man is now with a boy.  He has the boy stand in front of the mounted knights while he takes a picture.  The man seems happier now…more accepting of his life.

Here is a boy in a wheel chair.  His head is bent back at an odd angle.  His hands are deformed.  He will never be able to ride these horses like we did, he knows that.  But, in his mind he is living a full life of adventure and romance.  His imagination has taken wings.

Here is the gray-haired man again.  He’s with an older woman.  She is not the mother of his children, I can see that in her visage.  He is very happy now.  They are holding hands.  I see her wedding ring glint in the bright lights over our heads.

I close my eyes.  It’s all too much even for a spirit to take in.  I open them.

There’s a young man.  I can sense that he is the child of the gray-haired gentleman.  This young man has a little boy with him.  It’s his son.  The father points to various armor suits and the mounted knights.  He’s eager to share certain things with the boy.  They walk off, hand in hand.

I’ve been waiting for years now, but the old man with the gray hair does not come here anymore.   Someday, when my soul is freed from my steel body I would like to talk with him.

I want to tell him he was a knight in shining armor to someone.


Epitaphs: Part IV

A few simples words about Mortality

It was a damp and warm day in mid-August.  I stood over the gravesite and heard the locusts singing in the nearby fields.  The stone was smooth, given its age and I had to drop to my knees to read the delicate epitaph on the lower half of the headstone.

It was a simple rhyme with a message.  But aren’t all epitaphs giving you a message?  Isn’t that the whole point?  To scold. To warn. To remind, yes, remind you of what your ultimate fate will be.

The church stood a few meters away.  It was a Baptist cemetery but the epitaph was without a promise of damnation.  It was a gentle ditty with a sweet cadence.  I closed my eyes.  I could almost smell the musty pages of the bibles mixed with the sweat of the congregation while they sang spirituals.  Perhaps a tent revival was promised for an upcoming weekend.

The names and dates really didn’t matter.  It was a mid 19th century stone, that I can remember.  The faint traces of a weeping willow tree could still be seen.  Who lay beneath the stone, under the sunken grass may have chosen the words.  Maybe not.  But all the same, he or she is playing out the story told in such simple words.  Their worries are over.  In our time, we read and pretend they are just words…not really meant for us…but they are.  We all know it.

For those of you who have eyes like mine, here are the words:

Great God is this our certain door

And are we still secure:

Still walking downwards to our tomb

And yet prepare no more.

And, here is the epitaph as I saw it.  The stone was almost too hot to touch:


The Whistle-Stop Girl of Montana

The gentle swaying of the coach of the train was lulling me to sleep.  I had spent the night at Union Station in Chicago waiting for the early morning departure of the Great Northern, bound for Seattle.  It was a long lay-over and I was tired.  After watching the western suburbs of the Windy City I made the mistake of closing my eyes.  Soon I was dreaming of the Rocky Mountains and points west.  I was due in Juneau, Alaska in four days.  I and another student were hired as seasonal assistants to two geologists from the USGS and we were to continue collecting rock samples and mapping on the Juneau Icefield, picking up where we had left off and the end of the 1967 field season.

I had just turned nineteen.  It was early summer of 1968.

I sat alone; deep in thoughts of the glaciers, and then in a moment, lost in the fog of slumber.

When I awoke and pulled the shade up, I was nearly blinded by the glare of the wheat and corn of the prairie states.  I studied the endless acres and occasional farm-house.  A boy was sitting on a split-log fence watching the train speed past.  Behind him was a small barn and a small grain silo and behind that was his modest little house.  He wore bib overalls and looked to be about ten years old.  He held firmly to the wood rail and waved vigorously at the passengers that were looking at him.  I waved back and he seemed to look only at me.  Perhaps, I thought, I was the only passenger that bothered to wave back to him.  I’m sure he knew the timetables well and went to the fence just for a chance to wave…and be seen by so many strangers heading west.  I felt a pang of sorrow for the boy.  He was lonely, I was sure of it.  After all, where were his brothers and sisters?  I think he had no one but us.  I waved until he faded into the distance.

For some reason, I’ve been think of that little boy and wondered what happened to him in life.

At each town we stopped at, more people got on the train.  I recall my car being nearly filled.  I pulled out a copy of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and read.  Suddenly, I was aware of a boy coming through the sliding doors from the forward cars.  He came to my seat (I was in the front seat so I had more leg room) and stood looking at me.

“Hi, there,” I said.

“I have a message for you,” he replied.

I didn’t understand.  Was this some kind of game?

“Oh, really,” I said to him as I turned sideways in my seat to face him.  “What would that message be?”

“Two cars up,” he pointed in the direction he came from.  “There’s a girl, she wants you to come up and sit with her.”

I was stunned at first, then quickly became curious.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“She didn’t say, but she has a blue shirt on.”

He moved toward the sliding door and turned.  “She waiting for you.”  He was gone.

Just a game, I said to myself.  I returned to Steinbeck.  I read a chapter.  I closed the book and stared at the magazine rack in front of me.

I got up and made my way to the forward cars.  Two cars up…blue shirt, I kept whispering.

The moment I entered the second car I saw her.  She was sitting in the last row on the left.  She was about my age and was clutching a pillow.  By her feet was a small duffel bag.

She had a blue shirt on.

I ignored her and walked to the front of the car pretending to look for a new magazine.  I turned and went back along the aisle.  When I got to her seat I noticed she had moved to the center.  I slowed and looked at her.  She nodded her head toward the empty seat.  I sat down.  We introduced ourselves.  I confess, I forgot her name, so I’ll call her Ellen.

We joked about the boy with the message.  She said she noticed me when she boarded a few stops west of Chicago.  Seeing I was napping she went by me.  She said I looked “interesting”.

I looked out the window and saw that the sun was setting and darkness was falling on the northern Great Plains.

A tingle went down my spine and butterflies swarmed my stomach when she reached over and with confidence and gentleness, took my hand in hers.  I put my arm around her shoulder and as the sun slipped below the western horizon, we kissed.

She told me she was going home after spending a month in a church camp outside of Chicago.  Yes, she was going home.  I asked her where home was and she said the name of a Montana town that I never heard of.  Her family, she told me, had a ranch and they raised cattle.  Everyone around her owned an active ranch.  It was Montana cattle country.

I held onto her.  She did not want to be alone for this journey back home.  We nestled together on the three empty seats and made an effort to sleep.  After about fifteen minutes of shifting around to find the comfort zone, she raised her head.  Her eyes looked dewy in the dim light of the coach.  It was 11:45 PM.  Her lips were full and locks of her hair fell onto her forehead.  Her arm was around my waist.  She’d been busy thinking.

“Would you like to get a sleeper cabin?” she asked, her eyes were fixed on mine.

“Sure,” I said. “But I think the car is full.”

“I’m going to talk to the porter…I’ll work it out,” she whispered.  She slipped her sneakers on and went back toward the sleepers.

Suddenly, I was terrified of what might happen.  A year earlier, a priest said something to me in the Confessional that was clinging to me like Super Glue.  I won’t reveal details, but he said that more people were burning in the fires of hell FOR ALL ETERNITY for sins of flesh than any other transgression against God (combined, I’m sure).  I struggled with these thoughts as I matured and became more intimate with the opposite sex.  I was soon to be twenty, young and strong, but felt in my soul like a little errant altar boy. So I wrestled with desiring the sweetness of a woman and fearing the fires of hell.

I was morally conflicted.  Would I be strong tonight?  Yes, I told myself, Ellen just wants to be cuddled and I just wanted not to be seared on both sides in fires that would never diminish.  Never.

Ellen came back.  I held my breath.

“The porter said there was nothing he could do.”

I felt a jolt of frustration and anger while, at the very same instant, relieved that the choice I would have faced was taken away.

I pulled her toward me and we stretched back.  She had been carrying a light blanket, which I grabbed and pulled over the two of us while we slept.  But we didn’t fall asleep until I gave her a long, warm and gentle kiss on the top of her copper hair.

When we awoke, we were half-way across Montana.  Her stop was to be in the middle of the afternoon.  We had seven hours to talk, kiss and hold onto each other.  I went off to the food car and brought back snacks for us to munch on while the hours slipped by.

It was around noon when she looked up at me and said something that caught me totally off guard.

“Why don’t you get off with me and come to the ranch?  You can stay a few days and then my dad and I will drive you back to the station.”

“But I have to be in Juneau in two days,” I said, my mind racing and full of ideas.

“You can call them and tell them you’ll be a day late.”


I looked out of the window and saw the wheat fields and gently rolling hills of Montana pass.  I thought about this offer.  Yes, I could call the USGS office in Juneau and say I was delayed a day or two.  I would go to her ranch, meet her family, share their meals and maybe even mend a barbed wire fence somewhere out on the south forty.  I would ride a horse.  They’d teach me how to twirl a lariat.  I would be asked to brand a few head of cattle (I’d politely decline).  I might buy cowboy boots.  Wear dirty jeans.  The family would surely give me an old Stetson.  Her brothers would like me.  Her sisters would flirt with me.  I’d sip ice-cold lemonade in the shade of a cotton-wood tree, hidden from the blinding glare and blazing afternoon heat in the Land of the Big Sky.  I’d breathe the dust and soil of the ranch country.

She tugged at my hand and asked what I was thinking about and would I consider her offer.

I didn’t know what to say.

Her station was beyond Billings.  We passed through there two hours earlier.  I began to have the butterflies in my gut once again.  I was a free young man.  I was free to make choices for my life.  The only thing that could stop me was myself.  Was I going to follow the expectations of my parents?

The conductor came through the car and called out the next dozen stops.  Ellen’s was the ninth one.

What was I going to do?  She clung to me and I to her.  She started to cry…just a little tear but it was real.  I think she felt she knew what my choice was going to be.  But I didn’t know what I was going to do.

We came slowly to the station where she would get off.  It was only a small platform, a small building and few pick up trucks.  It was a real whistle-stop.  A dusty road, straight as an arrow, went south.

She slowly took up her things.  We folded the blanket.  She held her pillow on her chest and both arms held it tight to her body.

I was nearly ready to say yes, let’s go, but I didn’t.  I stood on the platform and looked into Ellen’s blue eyes.  They were as blue and deep and open as the Montana sky.  She had wiped away the few tears and looked at me, our eyes steady.  She glanced around and said her dad would be along soon.  I heard bells and the short blasts from the engine.  I heard the “ALL ABOARD” from the conductor, who was looking at the only one who wasn’t on board, me.

I put my arms around her, the pillow separating our bodies.  I kissed her one final time and stepped back onto the stairs.  The train jerked to a slow start.  She turned her body to me as I became more and more distant.  I waved.  She blew me a kiss.  I watched her until there was nothing more to see, except the tiny red speck of one of the pick up trucks.  Soon, even that was lost among the prairie of the Big Sky country.

I went back to the empty seat.  It was my turn to let the tears fall down my cheeks.

[A note to Ellen:  Ellen, is your hair a little grey now?  Are you a grandmother?  I’ll bet you’re a really good one if you are.  Did you marry a nice man who treated you with love and respect?  Did you have a daughter?  Does she run a ranch?  A son? Did he survive the wars to come home to help your father.  I imagine your parents are buried now, in a plot under the shade of a cotton wood tree beside a white church.  If you are online and reading blogs, I want to say something to you.  I didn’t forget your name because you were not important to me.  I just got old.  I forget things.  Indeed, I loved you in a certain way that didn’t require years to germinate.    Even though we spent only about thirty hours together, they were our moments.  They were a tiny slice in the vast experiences of life.  One thing is certain: No one can mention Montana without your image coming to mind.  We will never cross paths again in this life, and even if we did, we wouldn’t know each other, would we?  Not unless I happen to see a pretty young woman with blue eyes and golden hair clutching a pillow on a platform, in a prairie, at a whistle-stop, on a hot summer afternoon…with a Big Sky overhead.]

Good-bye, Ellen…you’ll aways be Ellen to me.



The late afternoon was growing warmer and more humid with each passing hour.  But it was the nature of late July in Saratoga Springs.  The south winds blew and with it came the heat and the dampness from the far off ocean.  The summer was waning but not giving up yet to the crisp autumn days that lay ahead.

Yes, it was getting most uncomfortable in the Grandstand of the race track.  The great thoroughbreds had to be watered and splashed with cool water after each race.

A pretty young woman with copper-red hair was beginning to feel like a wilting lily.  Her beautiful hair, hair that turned the heads of men and other women alike, was taking on unexpected curls.  Her pale forehead was damp with a rose scented dew of perspiration.  Her name was Ashley Kent.

Ashley was a newly married woman.  She and her new husband, Spencer, were on their honeymoon in Saratoga Springs that summer of 1951.  They chose that quaint village north of Albany because it offered many ways to spend the lazy days of July.  In truth, Spencer much preferred spending his money on the horses while Ashley chose to take the waters at the many spas.  She only came to race track to humor Spencer.  She would  stay for a few races before excusing herself to return to the hotel room to nap, read a book or seek out a new spa in which to indulge herself.

She was happy to be married and felt she truly loved Spencer.  Still, she felt something, a little seedling of an emotion deep in her heart that brought up questions.  Was her love real and absolute? Or did she agree to the marriage so that there would be no shame on her family’s good name.

A week after her wedding, Ashley was a month into her pregnancy.  She felt it and knew it before she even consulted a doctor.  After she missed her period for the month…she simply knew.

“I’m off, sweetheart,” she told Spencer, as she picked up her few items from under the seat of the grandstand.  “I’m going to that Spa we saw yesterday during our walk in the town park.”

“You look a bit pale, my dear,” said Spencer, barely taking his eyes from his binoculars.  “Will you be alright?”

“Yes, of course.  We’ll meet up at the hotel about seven.  Is that alright with you?”

“Sure, about seven.  The last race will be about five-thirty so it all works out.  The pay phone behind you, on the column there.  You have that number so if something comes up, just call me.  I’ll be right here until the bitter end.  Perhaps the gods will smile at me and I’ll win enough for a really fine dinner of the lobster you’ve been asking about.”

“Kiss, kiss my dear.  See you later, Spencer.  I hope I don’t love this pool so much that I’ll never want to come out.”

The young husband helped his young bride to the last step and with a final kiss, returned to his seat and held his binoculars hard against his eyes.

“Oh, and Spencer, when I looked into the Spa the other day I noticed a bank of telephones near the entrance way.  I wrote the number of the last booth on the right.  Here, take it and call if you get bored.  I’m sure an attendant will take the call, they’re told to answer the phones in case someone is to be located.  Remember how we did this from the two drug stores in Queens?  That was so cute the way you’d call from one only a block from where I worked.”

“Got it, Ash,” said Spencer as he slipped the number into his shirt pocket.  “Bye, luv.”

Ashley took a taxi to the old Lincoln Spa.  Twenty minutes after she left Spencer, the pay phone on the column behind him rang.  He stepped over to it and answered.

“Ashley, it’s you.  How’s the spa?”

“It seems fine so far. I’ve only just walk around…Spencer…there’s something odd about this place.  I just don’t know.  Something odd, you know, funny, about the people walking around the lobby.  Some look like they’re lost or something.”

“Oh, silly, just find a pool and relax.  Get pampered, that’s why we’re here.  Look, I have to get back, the race is about to start.  Bye, dear.”  Spencer hung up and went back to his seat.

The races were over and Spencer lay back on the feather bed of the hotel.  He figured he had about forty-five minutes to take a quick nap, before Ashley arrived.  He closed his eyes.

It was dark when he woke up.  The ceiling fan had put him into a deep sleep with its slow rotation and cool breeze…the way a vampire bat put its victim to sleep with the fanning of its large wings.

He looked around.  There was no sign of Ashley.

He went down to lobby and asked if any messages came in for him.  There was nothing. Spencer sat in a great wing-backed chair near a potted palm tree and tried to think.  His wife was nearly two hours late.  He felt his pocket and found the slip of paper with the phone number of the last booth near the entrance of the old Lincoln Spa.

Spencer found a phone just off the lobby and called the number.  No one answered. He went to the bar and ordered a cognac.  He went back to the phone and called again.  Still, no answer.  He waited a few minutes, his anxiety increasing with each second that ticked away on the large clock on the marble wall

He called once again.

A voice came on the line.

“I’m sorry, but the number you are trying to reach has been disconnected.”

“What the hell do you mean? shouted Spencer.  “What do you mean disconnected?”

The operator paused and said:  “Sir, that number you have trying to call has been out of service for many years.”

“I demand you put the call through, miss.”  Spencer was livid.  “Place the call, dammit!”

It was a warm day in late July, 2013, in Saratoga Springs.  The south wind was bringing in moisture from the sea.  People sat at the races and people went shopping on Broadway.

The lobby of the old Lincoln Spa was nearly deserted.  The people who walked in and out of the building to use the public toilet passed a row of empty phone booths.

A young man passed the last booth on the right and heard a distinct ringing…like an old-fashioned telephone.

If there was a phone nearby, he would have answered.  But as he walked on, the ringing in his ears kept on, and on…and on.


Epitaphs: Part III

What Think You?

Well, here’s another epitaph for you to ponder.  This particular one is very special to me.  It is located in Evergreen Cemetery, Owego, NY.  This is the town where I grew up.  The cemetery was designed (like many in the 19th century) to be a place to wander, reflect or just admire the funerary art of the day.  Evergreen is a smaller version of the famous Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.

When I was young, this cemetery became one of my favorite places to walk through.  I’ve taken many friends up to “Cemetery Hill” and have spent many hours sitting and admiring the view of my little hometown below me.  I could almost see my house, but the Susquehanna River slowly flowed past the buildings from its origin at Otsego Lake in Cooperstown to its final destination merging with the saltwater of the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a perfect place to go “parking” when I was a teenager.  I could hold and kiss my girlfriend in relative privacy…if one didn’t mind the shadows and 1000+ tombstones among the trees, the Evergreen trees.

Yes, I could kiss and walk about with my love.  I could dance or sing.  I had the spark of life in me…unlike all the local residents.

Along side one of the drives and down a few steep steps was a large headstone.  On it was the epitaph I will share with you.  I’ve heard (but cannot verify) that it is one of the longest epitaphs in America.  The very length of the wording makes it difficult to photograph in a way this stone deserves.  It was a multi-family marker.  The grave sites of those mentioned at the bottom of the stone are scattered around a fairly large plot.  I often wondered who these people were.  Where did they live?  Was I friends of one of the descendants?

What I didn’t have to ask myself was what they thought of life.  It’s all there on the epitaph.  Those words affect me to this day…now that I am no longer a teenager with a sweetheart on my arm.  The individuals who wrote the message were once like me.  The only real difference was that I could walk away, they couldn’t.

I figure that I am now as old as those were who were responsible for the epitaph.  I’m closer to their fate now than I was fifty years ago.  Statically speaking, that is.

To me, the message on the stone is as relevant as a prayer, as deep as any existential philosophy and as timely as a STOP sign.  Yes, this STOP sign asks you to hold on for a moment and think of where you are on the awesome road of life.

Read it and weep:

The Girls of the Corn

The scene was something like the photographs of Dust Bowl Oklahoma.  But there was so much current reality around me, it made a jarring juxtaposition.  Fifty feet behind me the SUVs, the pick-ups and the Greyhound size RVs roared past on the paved road.  A few feet in front of me was a nearly extinct image from long ago days.  It was a farmer’s corn stand.

I sat at one of these when I was about ten years old.  My grandmother lived on a small working farm in upstate New York.  One afternoon, my parents, brothers and grandmother had someplace to go so they left me in charge of the vegetable stand.  It was a plank held up by two barrels.  I had baskets of fresh tomatoes, peaches, peas and corn.  It was unbearably hot in the nearby fields, but I was comfortable in the shade of an ancient elm tree (it died during the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the 1960s).  I didn’t want my folks to return and take command of my little retail world.  The ’49 Fords would pull up and men with white tee-shirts and suspenders would get out and buy my  grandmother’s goods.  Once in a while a cute young girl would get out and ask for five tomatoes and a dozen ears of corn.  I would impress her with my ability to quickly make change.  I got to take a dozen ears home that night.  Lord, that corn of yesterday was good.  It wasn’t even the same species of what one buys at the local supermarket.  The kernels popped in your mouth and the butter ran down your cheeks.  I loved it with salt and pepper.

Now, here it was in August of 2013.  Again I was in upstate New York…this time very far north; near Canada.  But there it stood and I braked made a sharp right turn and drove into the dusty parking lot.  The stand was white with hand-painted prices, in black, on the wall.  The cornfields were just feet away.  The ears that were picked that morning were still in the field worker’s sacks.  The price was very reasonable.  While my wife bought three peaches and six ears of corn, I stood in the glaring sun and heavy hot air of mid-August.  My straw hat did little to deflect the sun.  I was looking around me and absorbing all the images.  And I was watching the girls who were selling the produce.

Here were two pretty teenage girls, in flip-flops and tee-shirts.  One wore what looked like black spandex leggings.  My own legs burned as I looked at her.

Memories of my childhood, farms and corn.

Then the 2013 reality check happened.  Both girls were wearing wrap-a-round reflector sunglasses, like the kind the State Troopers wear.

I saw one cell phone but no texting went on.  No music played from the little radio I saw inside the stand.  Less than ten miles away was the County Fair, in full progress.  I felt they would rather be there at the Fair with their boyfriends and eating cotton-candy and riding the whirly rides.  But, no.  Here they spent the day, selling what was probably was their parents produce.  They sweated as they would dump the corn sacks onto the table.  One woman customer bought three dozen ears.

My wife went back to our car.  I waited for the woman to take her thirty-six ears and depart.  I stood facing the white stand and the piles of corn, stacks of peaches and the girls.  I came forward and asked if they would stand in the doorway and pose for a photo.  They looked at each other with puzzled expressions.

I stood there, a gray-haired man.  How would they know I sold corn once?  It was a smaller stand and it was over fifty-five years ago.  They could never know that about me.

“You don’t see many of these kind of corn stands anymore,” I said.  “Would you stand in the doorway?”

They did.  My wife and I drove home.

The County Fair Talent Show was set for 7:30 that night.  Surely these two girls had talent.  But I worried whether they could get home, shower and get ready to sing a country song like John Denver’s “Country Roads” or perform a jazz dance.  Yes, surely these girls possessed talents I couldn’t see in the glare of the afternoon sun.

I didn’t make it to the Talent Show.  I was too busy sharing our corn at a dinner with friends.

By God, that corn was good!