Travels 7: Somewhere in the Black Mining Hills of Dakota

My lands are where my dead lie buried.

–Chief Crazy Horse

My last post was written with a sad heart.  Pine Ridge Reservation will bring down even the most optimistic of people.  I have to say that I slept well and was not delivered of dreams, either of blue-eyed prairie women or sad-eyed Sioux.  I needed the rest.  It had been a grueling day.

Today we went north to visit two sights that are perhaps some of the most popular in the region.  Our first stop was Crazy Horse Mountain.  Now, when I came through here in 1964, this attraction did not exist.  The big draw then was a few miles further north, Mt. Rushmore.

At this point, I must say that by nature, I am not a fan of denuding an entire mountain with thousands of tons of dynamite.  I rather see the world as nature intended–the more untouched and disturbed, the better.  But, now I was faced with not one, but two mountains that have been carved like a half-ton of Carrera Marble.  And to make the situation even more puzzling to me was that each site represented two very different cultures.  History on a collision course.  History going 90 mph down a dead-end street.  (I had to find a place to slip in a Dylan quote somewhere.)

On Rushmore, there are the heads of four white Presidents.  The Father of Our Nation, an early President who owned slaves, had children with one of them–and still went on to write the Declaration of Independence, a Trust Busting National Leader who set in place the National Park System, and of course, the Liberator of slaves (who never could admit the actual human equality of the African-Americans).  Yes, these gentlemen put together a great nation and yes, they were extraordinary individuals by any standards, but they were white men and their faces were to reflect a new nation.  But, where were the women? the blacks? and the others that built the nation with their backs, their sweat, there tears and their lives?

Ok, a monument to a nation with four symbolic figures to stand in for the masses.  I can deal.  One mountain gone–one monument raised.  This one is done for all practical purposes.  As much as the Right would like it, I doubt that Ronald Reagan will ever adorn the facade, joining his fellow Chief Executives (most of whom he would argue with under the moon of the Black Hills).

A few miles south is another project all together.  This one, dedicated to Crazy Horse is not nearly finished.  This figure is intended to dwarf all others.  It will be the largest sculpture in the world.  It was begun decades ago by an assistant to the guy who carved Rushmore.  The figure will be of a mounted Crazy Horse with his arm outstretched over his horse’s head.  He will be pointing to the distant horizon…where his dead lie buried.  It’s worth noting that Crazy Horse, the Noble Chief of the Plains, was stabbed in the back and killed by an American soldier in September, 1877,  (only twelve years after the North defeated the South in a struggle for, in part, the freedom of men).

When we entered the Crazy Horse Mountain visiting center, it would cost me $20.00.  I was a bit miffed at the fact that this fee was charged.  Only later did I find out that it is privately owned and operated.  When finished, it will be a huge complex dedicated to the education, arts and cultural of the American Indian.  The people in charge wanted no government money.

After returning to Custer, S. Dakota, where we were camping, I took a walk through the woods to reflect on what I had seen today.

Here we had not one, but two, TNT blasted mountains.  I thought about this.  Actually, this was not without precedent.  After all, there were gigantic Buddhas carved in a mountainside in Afghanistan (that the Taliban blew up a few years ago). I’m sure there are more examples throughout the world, I just can’t think of them right now.

I’m leaving South Dakota tomorrow for Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.  Now here’s a mountain that nobody has touched, yet.

It’s a mystical place, I hear.  Spielberg used it as the site of the landing of the Mother Ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I’ve seen the Tower before.  The only human interaction there was the rock-climbing.

I don’t know.  Maybe more is less–or less is more.

Who am I to judge?

Look close and you can see Crazy Horse:



Travels 6: Catching a Dream at Wounded Knee

Yesterday, I told a woman she had very pretty blue eyes.

We stopped for gas in Laurel, Nebraska, and within thirty minutes, half the town knew we were there.  I was stopped at a light and a guy in a black pick-up Ford asked if I was on the way to the classic car auction.  I said no.  Mariam went into a bar to order our lunch.  I wanted a “real cheeseburger” this time and not another McDonald’s salad.  I triple parked with the R-Pod and headed for the little Post Office across the street.  I lucked out.  They had an international stamp that would allow me to mail a post card to a friend in Australia.  On the way out of the P.O. door, a woman–a complete stranger–asked if that cute little trailer was mine.  I said yes.  She said she had seen it at the gas station a few minutes ago and wanted to know if I was going to the classic car auction.  I said no.  We talked.  I asked her what it was like to grow up in the Nebraska prairie.  She said it didn’t snow as much as it used to do when she was a little girl.  In those few minutes, she described a life that could have been lived in many places.

As she headed for her car, I told her she had very pretty blue eyes.  She blushed and said thank you for the compliment.

Mariam emerged from the bar with the sandwiches.  We headed west on Route 20, again, but this time I bit into a 4-star burger that had it all.  It was a long way to Valentine, Nebraska, but I was a contented driver now.

Today, however, didn’t play out the way yesterday did.  In fact, when I turn this iMac off in a little while, I will probably have trouble sleeping.  My heart is sad tonight, and my sleep may deliver dark dreams.

I hope this isn’t true, because I bought a dream-catcher.  They’re supposed to deny bad dreams from disturbing one’s sleep.

The day began to slide south when we entered Pine Ridge, South Dakota.  You may know that this is arguably the most distressed Indian Reservation in the “system.”  The unemployment rate is said to be around 92%!  When we pulled into a Shell station, I was being stared at by most of the Lakota Sioux townsfolk that were sitting on curbs and doorways.  Small bottles poked out of small brown paper bags.  I, who was wearing expensive sunglasses, could stare back without it being noticed.  I felt awkward.  I felt like some preppy kid on a “slumming” field trip to see how the other half lives.  The junction of Pine Ridge was in the center of a vast failed experiment on the part of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) to offer the Native Americans a slice of the pie–their pie–that we (white Americans) had taken from them.

We not only took the land, we stole their spirit, their nobility, their honor, their history and their lives.

I was on my way to visit Wounded Knee, the site of a savage massacre that effectively ended the Native American resistance to our greed.

The backstory is long and complicated so I won’t go into it here.  I recommend Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart in Wounded Knee, if you want a complete history of what Manifest Destiny meant to the original owners of this land.

I read the book over thirty years ago and now it was time for me to make a pilgrimage to this awful site and pay my respects.  What I found was not what I expected.

There were no U. S. Government historical markers (at least none that I could find). There was some signage but it looked hand painted and homemade.  I took the left turn and drove the nine miles or so to where this massacre took place.  But I was having trouble finding the exact site.  Now, I realize, that armed with a proper history book and maps, I could probably have found it, but like so much else on this trip, I simply didn’t have the time to spend.  Because of that fact, I felt callous and rushed about the visit.

So, after a few wrong turns (I’ve made a few) I found the general location of the killing.  I say “general” because it wasn’t in just one spot where the bodies of over 150 Lakota men, women and children were found.  Indeed, they were found along the Wounded Knee Creek–for miles!

The reason for the tragedy?  Accounts differ, but it boils down to a major portion of the 7th U. S. Cavalry were on hand to keep an eye on the Sioux.  A string of events unfolded quickly.  Chaos abounded.  Soldiers fell, some it is said, was by friendly fire during the ensuing riot of guns and blood.

This took place on December 29, 1890.  The Sioux were gathered for a Ghost Dance.  It was to be their final Ghost Dance.  It was the end of hostilities.  The various tribes were rounded up.  Some of their descendants still live in and around Pine Ridge.

I stopped at a small and shaded souvenir stand near the Wounded Knee Creek.  The items for sale numbered only a few.  There were three families using the stalls to sell their things.  I bought a dream catcher from a woman.  She looked at me and thanked me for buying from her.

She didn’t have bright blue eyes.  She had sad brown eyes that told me of a hard life spent in that God-forsaken town.

She didn’t have to say a word to me.  I could see her soul through her eyes.  These moist dark brown orbs were her portal to the times when her people rode with pride and grace and without fear across the endless prairie.

So, now I sit in my R-Pod, one hundred miles to the north and think of things that are and of things that once were.

I’m looking at the dark-skinned woman’s dream catcher and I pray that it catches the dreams I don’t want to have this night…or any night.

Tomorrow, I’ll stand and stare at four white Presidents carved like gods into the rock edifice of a mountain.  Later, I will stare at a mythic figure of Crazy Horse carved into a nearby mountain.

Who really belongs here?

The landscape around Wounded Knee:


Travels 5: Oh, Pioneers!

The great American Poet and Literary Goddess of the Prairie, Willa Cather, once said:  “I was raised by a tooth-less bearded hag…I was schooled with a black strap across my back…but it’s alright now, in fact it’s a gas.”  Hold on, I don’t think that was Willa Cather.  No, after rechecking my sources, I find that Cather wanna-be named Mick Jagger was the author of that famous American line.

Here it is, Willa Cather actually said: “Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening.”

I’m beginning to understand her meaning.

We’re getting deep into the very edge of the center of the Great American Prairie.  With each day that passes, as I watch this world go by from the driver’s window of our Ford Escape, I sense that I am delving deeper and deeper into the shallow soil that covers these vast ranchlands.  Yes, I am becoming part of the very geography itself.  My left arm is getting brown.  My gray hair is dry and wind-tossed into a teasingly innocent thatch of salt.  Just enough of my well-tanned neck is seductively visible beneath my tussled hair and my Wrangler shirt collar.  Yes, I gain insight every second I exist in this amazing place.

Right now, that amazing place is central Iowa.  We speed along Highway 20.  I am becoming one with the land.  With my increasingly keen eyesight, I see something in the road, ahead.  There goes one, across the pavement, from brush into brush.  I know immediately it’s a “side-winder” snake.  Like the ones you seen in the cowboy movies.  There’s another.  Can it be?  Can it be that we are driving Highway 20 at the exact time of the Great Side-Winder Migration?  It can’t be.  This occurs only once every quarter of a century.  God has granted me this sight.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness the Great Migration of these rare snakes.  There’s more in the road in front of us.  I slow.  I don’t to kill any of these innocent creations of God as they make their way to the Breeding Grounds north of Iowa.  No one is behind me.  I slow to a stop, pulling over on the gravel shoulder, pebbles clicking against my R-Pod.  I reach behind me to take hold of my new Nikon D3200.  I need a shot of this!

It’s then that I realize that the strong breeze is actually blowing strips of dried packaging from a Chinese Take-Out back in Waterloo.

I get out and pretend to check my tires, just in case someone is watching.  Checking my tires is something I REALLY intended to do right now.  I even snapped a few pictures of the tires to drive home the point…just in case someone is watching.

I want to see the endlessness of these infinite lands.  At a rest stop (boy, there aren’t many of these around).  There is a hill.  I climb to the top and read a sign about the Grasslands that are now almost gone.  I wanted to see the Empty Quarter.  The lack of human landmarks that Willa Cather spoke about.  I wanted to get depressed looking at this forbidding landscape.

And, there it was!  Gently rolling hills that disappeared into the haze of distance.  What’s that?  It’s a cell phone tower.  Over there?  It’s a mega-farm with silos as tall as the Empire Building.

I got back into the car and headed to North Sioux Falls in South Dakota.  I was hoping not to get it confused with Sioux Falls, Iowa or South Sioux City in Nebraska.

We parked in a KOA RV site.

The guy that rode a golf cart and led us to our site lost no time in noticing the bikes atop our car.  Hey, he said, you can bike about three miles on the bike path by the entrance and see a herd of Buffalo.  I thanked him, and looked at the bikes.  Just then I felt a familiar stabbing pain in my lower back.  There’ll be plenty of Buffalo to look at in the days ahead.  I headed to the picnic table.

I stretched my legs and then turned through the pages of the Sioux City Journal.  I saw a help wanted ad for the position of Corn Receiving Specialist.  I wondered if that was entry level or management.

While Mariam began dinner (hey, I drove) I decided to walk over to the office to buy a pint of ice cream.  As I strolled down the lane, I passed a guy with a hand-held iPad type of thing.  I told him that I loved having my iPad Mini along to help in Google searches.  I asked what he had.  A Kindle Fire, he said.  A reader, I thought.  Yup, he said, this the only way my wife allows me to gamble.

On the way back, I had to walk around a few times because I couldn’t find our R-Pod among the gigundo RV trailers that surrounded me.

But, I found our little trailer.

I am getting to be so good at being in this amazing country.



Travels 4: Blue Highways

Someone I’ve been searching for appeared before my eyes today and it wasn’t very far from Herbert Hoover’s grave.

We had just crossed the Mississippi River.  The Mother of North America Rivers.  Say what you want about the Hudson, Rio Grande or the Missouri; Big Muddy is what rivers are all about.   Yes, the mighty Mississippi…Old Man River…the Aorta of America…the Main Drain…separator of a continent…where the Eastern Dandy leaves his top hat behind and dons a Stetson and hip-straps a Colt.  St. Louis, Vicksburg and the Big Easy, New Orleans all feed at the shores of this legendary waterway.  Yes, we crossed it today.  It took about forty-five seconds…but it was toll-free.  Not bad considering you’ve entered another world.

We pulled up at the first Welcome Center Rest Stop.  I stretched my legs even though we had not gone that far.  It doesn’t take many miles for my legs to get crampy and stiff.  This was the Salt Kettle Rest Stop.  It seems salt was discovered in the area in the early 19th century.  The rusted salting kettle was on display near the parking lot.  I read the historical marker about a nearby town, where Herbert Hoover was born.

Eighteen wheelers were parked along the mid section of the pavement.  It was cool and cloudless; perfect conditions for a sunburn of my left arm as we headed west.  We started down the ramp to access the Interstate…that’s when I saw him.

He stood there near the end of the driveway.  There was a small bundle at his feet.  He looked me in the eye as we drove past him.  I returned his gaze.

This was a drifter…a modern day Oakie…a Hobo…a Loner on his way to a million somewheres.  He didn’t have his thumb in the air, he didn’t need to.  Any driver who took the time to see him, really see him, would know that he was waiting for a ride…any ride.

I can’t say the guy was homeless, at least not in the sense of how we’ve come to think of homelessness.  No, I think he had a place…or did once.  Perhaps he was going back.  Maybe he was leaving.  Did he just leave a job in the wheat fields?  Was he looking for the job in the wheat fields?

There was not time for me to stop and speak with him.  I couldn’t get a photo so you’ll have to use your imagination.  There was no time for anything except a moment of eye-to-eye contact.  I’d like to say that he smiled ever so slightly from his unshaven face, but I can’t say that.  His expression was one of…of no expression.  Just a direct, unapologetic momentary stare.  His head turned slightly as we passed him.  I hope he could see that we had no room for another person.

I’ve been waiting, watching and hoping for over a thousand miles, to see a man of the heartland…a Woody Guthrie, a Tom Joad, a specter from a Dorothea Lange photograph standing by the Blue Highway, a mute shade of a largely forgotten subculture of America.

I hope he could see that I wasn’t judging him.   In those few moments, I saw a lifetime…not mine, but his.  I had everything, a wife, a place to sleep, a car and a plan.  Part of me can’t help but think that he lacked some of what I claimed as mine.

It shamed me to think this way.  I knew nothing about this guy.  No, I wasn’t judging him, I didn’t know a thing about him.

But, in some odd way, in some strange inexplicable way, I liked him.


Travels 3: The Rock Island Line is a Mighty Fine Line

I was heading down the road, trying to loosen my load…

We were on our way to Rock Island.

When you’re busy doing hard traveling, like me, you can get caught up in the “hypnosis of the highway”.  I know I do.  You watch the road ahead.  All safety alerts are on, but your mind can begin to wander.

We had just crossed the Illinois state line.  I was staring at the thread of pavement in front of me; I-74…and I started to think about stuff.

My wife was sitting shotgun quietly calculating our gas mileage.

How we doing? I said.

We’re getting about nine mpg, she replied.

I laughed.  No really, what are we getting?

About nine, she said again.

Nine what? I asked.

Nine mpg, she said.

What do you mean by nine? I said.

We’re getting about nine miles a gallon, she said once again.

I’m asking about mpg, I said, this time with a manly voice.  How many miles per gallon are we getting?  No joking, ok?

Nine, she said, yet again.

I dropped the subject.  Clearly she didn’t understand what I was asking.  I turned my attention to the road.  My mind began to drift about.  I tried to figure out if you’re really supposed to pronounce the “s’s” in Des Moines.  Either way, it sounded funny.

I looked about me as I clipped along at 62 mph (in a 70 zone) and noticed something very unusual.  Most of you know (or should) that I’m a retired earth science teacher.  I’ve been trained to look deep and hard at the landscape.  With my expert eye, I was startled to notice the nearly complete lack of hills or mountains out here on the edges of the Great Prairie.  Basically, I was looking at flat land.  Really flat land.  Most of it was also being farmed.  Crops I knew well like corn covered endless acres.  There were also little brown plants, all dried up from late summer.  These too were crops, I surmised with an expertise that surprised even me.  I just wonder what they were.  No little small white things on them so that ruled out cotton.  I guess it’s all pretty much corn country out here.  Yes! Out here!  Where men had sunburns and the women hung clothes on lines in their backyards.  These were real people here, unlike some places I’ve been.

Then my visual scan changed to focus on the windshield.  I didn’t realize that the bugs that smashed against the glass were made of so many interesting colors.  I counted about a dozen yellow smears, about six greenish ones and several dull white ones…well, sort of off-white if you wanted an exact description.  One was actually bluish.

I began to take notice of the many signs for colleges and universities that were located in nearly all the little towns.  Lord, there were plenty of them.  So this is where all the farm kids got educated.  I saw a sign for Jubilee College.  I mean I never heard of Jubilee College.  I never knew anyone who actually went to Jubilee College.

I turned the radio on hoping to hear some Mozart or perhaps some John Coltrane.  Instead, I was blasted by the most insipid music I ever heard.  Station after station played songs with lyrics like: “I want to, I want to, I want to, but I can’t”.  As I spun the digital dial, the rest of the stations played songs, most of which had lyrics with the words Lord, hand, mission, love, pray, walking, joy and sin.  This is a God-fearing country out here.

Then a strange thing happened.  I caught a glimpse of a milepost sign that read: 137 Miles.  But, 137 miles to what?  From what?  I began to feel better when I realized that I had seen a sign like that before.  Basically, from just about anywhere you are, it’s 137 miles to someplace.  Maybe a few exits down the road and I would find out.

So, here we are sitting in our cozy little R-Pod.  I just heard a train whistle, then the bells indicating a hook-up or track change.

That train whistles.  That lonesome sound.  It calls ramblin’ guys like me.  Time to move on…time to hop the dusty boxcar.  Time to put some miles between you and that floozy back at the bar.  Her name is Wanda, and she’s got more miles in her eyes than a Rand McNally.  It’s the call of the road…. wait a minute…I’m already on the road.  I’m already traveling.  I’m already a pavement-pounding gentleman of the highway.    I don’t have any place to go in a boxcar.  That’s good because I get hay fever really bad and need a hankie when I’m around dust.

Gordon Lightfoot sang about being “Alberta Bound”.  I’d like to sing that too, but we’re not going to Alberta…we’re going to Orting, WA.

As I wind up this post, I think about the day I just had.  I saw through the front windshield the places I was going to…but what about where I’ve been?  I looked out of the rearview mirror to see my recent experiences fade.

All I saw were the bugs smashed against the front of the R-Pod.


Travels: Part 2 Stuck Inside of Stroudsburg With the Orting Blues Again

The question is quite simple.

Were you ever stuck in a small Sunoco station in a town in Pennsylvania, after filling up the tank of a car that was drinking petrol like a politician during Prohibition, while pulling a trailer that you, for a moment forgot you were pulling, with only .8mm of space between the fuel pumps and the side of your RV, and your tires wedged against a curb-like thingy, so hard pressed that you could not move forward or backward…at all?

Well, I have.

A black sedan was parked against the stone wall.  I couldn’t make a forward-and-to-the-left move, so I cut too sharp and found myself unable to go anywhere.  I stood in the parking lot and stared at the fuel pumps, trying to use my telekinetic powers to will them away when a kindly gentleman with a soft mid-southern accent came up and asked if I needed help.  I nearly dropped to my knees while wiping sweat and tears away.  There is a God.  He’s six feet tall and from South Carolina.  He knew the obscure ways to make a car and trailer move as one.  It must be some sort of Secret Brotherhood of Travelers.  He possessed the key and he made it happen (along with three guys who looked like they were fullbacks for Penn State).  We had to disengage the car and RV and these guys, these supermen, these regular Joe’s rolled up their sleeves and MOVED AN RV THREE FEET TO THE RIGHT.  They may as well have displaced the orbital path of the planet.  I felt guilty about leaving that extra box of Facial Tissues in the R-Pod.  That kind of extra weight can be a killer.  I reconnected and moved away from the pumps.  I prayed again after decades of feeling sure God wanted no part of my life on His earth.  I was free.  I wanted to ask the guys if they wanted to join me at the bowling alley down the road later…for a game and a beer…on me,  of course,  but they were gone before I could shift into neutral and get out of the car.  Were they even real?  And where was the gentleman from South Carolina?  He had driven off with his wife in a car, just a car without a trailer.  I could just hear this God telling Mrs. God that gray-haired guy was never going to make it to Tacoma.

So, off we drove…westward and deeper into the Keystone State.  The urban scape of New Jersey got smaller through the rear-view mirror.  Now we’re talking.  Countryside.  Dried cornfields and real barns and tall silos, with plenty of split-rail fences.  But no farm girls were sitting on those fences.

But, not to worry.  It’s the Autumnal Equinox today.  The first day of Fall.  People say that the red-cheeked farm girls drop like leaves from oak trees, like acorns onto the fences of their farms…this time of year, and sit and watch the migration of the gray-haired guys heading west.  They’ll giggle and say: Now there’s a guy who’ll never make it to Orting…not the way he’s looking at us all, as we line the fences across the fly over states.

Well, they’re going to be wrong.  I can multi-task.

Are these the rail fence goddesses that will monitor my westward odyssey?  Are these the sirens of the corn mazes?

Are they?

FenceGirlA FenceGirlB

To be continued.

The Odyssey Westward: Travels Part 1

Go my sons, put away your books.  Buy yourself stout shoes.  Walk the hills, the mountains, the valleys and the deserts.  In this way, and no other, can you learn of the world and its ways.

–Paraphrased from a quote on a 3 x 5 index card clipped to the dashboard of a ’60s VW driven by a California fellow named Fritz.  I spent two summers camping and working in the remote regions of the Juneau Icefield, Alaska.  We were field assistants for two geologists.  I have not seen or heard from Fritz in over forty-five years.  Fritz, if you’re out there, you challenged me to give meaning to the quote you had in your car.  The passage was credited to a “Severinus”.

–I would like to dedicate this series of posts to:

  • My brother, Chris.
  • My daughter, Erin, Bob, my son-in-law and my grandson, Elias Muir.  They are on a journey as well.
  • My son, Brian. who is on the pier, ready for the voyage of his life.
  • My wife, Mariam, for being beside me and sharing this trek, in life and on the road.
  • All my family, friends, lovers and followers who have stood by me.

I don’t know why you say good-bye…I say hello.

–The Beatles

I am at the beginning of a cross-country drive to Orting, WA, near Tacoma.  I am going to visit my daughter and 8 month old grandson.  My wife and I are pulling a small RV (an R-Pod).  It’s cheaper than dozens of motels and we can eat the food we want to eat.  I’d like to say we can shower, but a shower it isn’t.  I can wash my hair if I get on my knees and worship the plastic booth and toilet using the spray extension.  [Memo to self: keep the toilet and booth clean].

So, why am I doing this? After all, I’ve driven from the Seattle area back to New York State before.  Several times.  But I was young then, and stronger and more able to stay awake for long stretches of time.  I just turned 66 years old.  I don’t have the stamina I had then.  Tent camping was an option, but the schlepping factor and the rainy nights on the Great Plains put an end to those thoughts.

I want to use this opportunity to see the heartland of the USA, in the way John Steinbeck (Travels With Charley) and William Least-Heat Moon (Blue Highways) did.  On the “blue highways”.  I want to see the silos, the endless cornfields, the infinite acres of wheat, the amber grains, the greasy-spoon diners, the cowboy bars, the honky-tonk, the music festivals, the fruit stands, how Autumn comes to the grasslands and Rockies, the virtuous farm girls sitting on split-rail fences wearing bandanas around their sun-burned necks (and those not so virtuous with partly unbuttoned calico blouses) and to see the sunset and rise from vantage points I haven’t seen in decades.

Friends! Stick out your thumb and hitch a ride with us.  We have no backseat, but we’ll squeeze you in somehow…and together we can point out the interesting sights together.

You only go ’round once in life…or maybe twice.

But who really knows?



To be continued.

The Return of the Good Neighbors

I’m sitting back in my favorite Adirondack chair on our deck.  Every so often, a kayak or canoe paddles past our dock.  I can hear them but can just barely see them.  I have to do some trimming to clear the view to the water.  I thought about doing this a few weeks ago, when the weather was mild, but it meant I would have to decide which chainsaw to use; the electric one or the old gas job.  I couldn’t decide so I’ll think about it this winter and decide next June.

I’m snuggled in my L.L.Bean Fleece Jacket.  It’s green and cost about $48.00, but that includes free shipping so I really think I got a steal.

As I sit back, I contemplate my large tomato plant.  I counted close to thirty-five tomatoes.  None of this matters, of course, because they will never ripen.  The growing season up here in northern New York State ended about two months ago.  My tomatoes look like mutant Granny Smith apples.  I’m bummed out about the whole thing.

A few minutes ago, I was down in my office.  It’s actually a “Man Cave”.  I even put several very masculine items about the room to remind visitors that it’s really a “man cave” and not just an office.  I have a hammer.  A book by Hemingway and a birch bark waste basket…nothing that would be found in a “ladies boudoir”, if you get my drift.  I think I even have a copy of a Playboy magazine hidden somewhere, but I can’t find it.

I write my books in this room.

Back up on the deck, I think about my new novel.  I have dialogue and plot twists to figure out.  And setting. Setting is very important when you write a novel.  How else was the reader know where all the plot stuff was happening.  I should go back downstairs and write.  Earlier, I sat there at my iMac and did some thinking.  Then I realized I had some things to do.  Like write.

I stared at the 17″ (diagonal) screen.  But wait!  I had things more pressing to take care of.  My novel could wait a few minutes.  I had already counted my paper clips so that was done.  It occurred to me that I needed to rearrange my sand collection.  I couldn’t decide whether to sort them by geographical location or color.  I figured that location was the best choice because, if truth be told, they all kind of looked alike.  Scattered volumes of the poetry of Rod McKuen needed to be lined up together in a neat row.  I was so proud of them.  Also on my “to do” list was downloading the entire songbook of Yanni, King of the Pan Flute.  Then, of course, I had to begin on researching my projected two-part bio on “Milli Vanilli: The Early Years”.

Yes, there was an afternoons worth of hard work to do in the “Man Cave”.   So, I went back to the deck to think about all these things while sitting in my Adirondack, looking at my failed tomato harvest.

I settled back and began to drift while listening to the neighbor deftly handle his leaf blower.  The guy on the other side of my property was just getting his chain saw started.  It was going to be a perfect napping time.

Before I knew it, I was fast asleep and deep into a dream.  I had just won second prize in a “Think You Can Dance With The Stars?” segment.  My partner was Lady Gaga and our “routine” was pairs clog dancing.  As the creative leader of the duo I felt the need to ratchet up our demonstration.  So I took Gaga aside and asked her to add a short yodel piece.  She broke down in tears and left the set.  Gaga can be testy sometimes.  How was I to know that her first husband ran off with a Swiss sheep herder?

It was about that time when I was pulled from my slumber by a familiar “chink, chink”.  It was the unmistakable sound of a chisel on stone.  I went through the house and there they were.  Our neighbors from Ohio had returned from a wedding in Newport.  Darcy was back to work on our (his) stone walkway.  I just didn’t understand the necessity of all that work.  After all, I had already put a new sidewalk in last Fall.  I thought the railroad ties looked great.  It was only after several lady friends got their spike heels stuck in between the ties that my wife made me rip them out.


I looked at the progress Darcy was making and began to come around to the general thinking that the stone pieces were the way to go.  But, no one was going to pull anything over on me.  I had gone out during the night and checked the flat stones with a level.  They were perfect.  Just the thing to have as a base for my 30′ x 26″ strip of Astroturf.  I had it all figured out.

Don’t think that I didn’t take part in the labor.  I actually spent several minutes gathering the chips of chiseled rock and put them in a plastic bucket.  I’ll find a use for them somewhere.  Up here in the North Country, a man has to use everything…nothing goes to waste.

When it was finished, we all celebrated with a nice home cooked dinner.  My son, Brian and his girlfriend, Kristin were visiting.  He told bold tales of how he defied all his friends and co-workers in New York City and actually attended a Mets game at Citifield.  ( I raised my son to be strong and brave.)

When everyone left and the activity settled down, I found that I was the only one awake at 3:00 AM.

It was the perfect time for me to got down to my workshop and double-check that I had the correct amount of green paint.  I didn’t want anyone to comment on the ugly swirls of color in the stonework.

I wanted it to be just like a giant lawn.


When my wife and I drive through Ohio (really can’t help it), on our way home from Tacoma, I’m going to see how I can fix up Darcy’s property to really look good.

A Tunnel of Love

There is a Tunnel of Love that is known only to the residents (and friends) of my hometown.  It has a long history, but my life only intersected with this minor landmark for a short period of time.  I can only present and reflect a snapshot in the epic movie of life that is Owego, New York.

Travelers that pass through this town probably won’t find it.  In years gone by, passengers boarded the trains–such as the legendary Phoebe Snow–most likely glimpsed the Tunnel when the train stood at the station, awaiting the signal to continue on to Chicago and points west.  Yes, they would look down from the window and see this strange passage-way that dipped under the tracks.  Little did these people know what they were crossing over.

I know next to nothing about the history of the Tunnel.  I suspect that it was built sometime during the heyday of passenger service when trains passing through Owego, from New York City were frequent.  The structure allowed the townspeople–mostly kids, I would think–to safely cross under the busy rails on their way to the Boys Club or Evergreen Cemetery.

So, how does my slice of life in Owego overlap with the underpass?

One important fact that has to be considered is that my long-time girlfriend–childhood sweetheart–lived only a block away.  I was never a member of the Boys Club, mostly because I could never play basketball, never understood basketball and when I was ever forced into being a part of a team, would not know what on earth to do with the ball.  I knew it had to go into the hoop but getting it there, dribbling, was a skill I never mastered…like piloting a 747.

But the Boys Club did host dances, and dances were a way to hold my sweetie on any given Friday or Saturday night.  But the railroad tracks separated the dance from her front door.  How to walk her home?

That’s where me and the Tunnel of Love got to know each other.  The passageway was lit, but only with a few dim lightbulbs.  Do you think that I, a true red-blooded Owego teenager, would let the opportunity slip away?

I became a thief on those nights.  I stole more than one kiss.  And, of course she needed guidance through the semi-darkness, so I simply had to hold her hand on the way.  At the other end, her home waited just around the next corner.  On Autumn nights, the sidewalks would glisten with freshly fallen rain and the flagstone was slippery.  There was my arm again.  On crisp nights in October, we wold kick the piles of leaves as we walked to her porch.  A good-night kiss came and went.  I walked home, flushed with youth, love, vigor and…teenage passion.

I soon learned that the Tunnel was also a Hall of Fame of sorts.  Couples would chalk their names on the walls.  I wrote PE + MAW on more than one occasion.  There were names and love messages that dated back a decade.

The Tunnel had a history…and I (we) were a part of that legendary passage.

Passage.  There’s the metaphor I was looking for.  The Tunnel was a passage-way out of our youth to adulthood.  Soon, there were no more dances…no more hand-holding…and no more stolen kisses.  We both parted for college in ’65 and our parting was to be permanent.

The Tunnel is still there.  It was green on my last visit.  I walked through with my twenty-something son.  The love notes were gone, replaced by modern urban-like graffiti…none of it I could read.

The walls were damp from leaks.  Pools of stagnant water filled the low areas.

But the Tunnel still had an echo.  I yelled “HEY” for my son and we listened to the reverberation.  Yes, it was still there.

The Tunnel of Love still has many echoes.


Alternate Endings II

Sometimes life is like a box of chocolates,

You just never know what you’re gonna get.

–Forrest Gump

ACT 1–Mary arrived in Chicago and settled in with her sister, Gladys.  Gladys had never married but she was often in the company of a girlfriend, Monica.  Very few men were present in the world of Gladys.  This began to trouble Mary.  Things like this just didn’t happen in small towns.

Small towns.  Mary’s thoughts often returned to the gentle landscape of the village by the river where she had lived her life so far.  The buildings along North Michigan Avenue became monolithic monsters to Mary.  There were too many people…and these people didn’t really know each other very well.  Gladys had many acquaintances, but no real friends, with the exception of Monica.

Mary thought about Ron.  She wondered how he had been getting on without her.  For a time, Mary thought about filing for divorce but now she was having second thoughts.

After six months of trying to find a quiet place in Chicago that resembled her hometown, Mary made the decision to go home.  Not only did she miss her friends and the simple shops along River Street, she also missed Ron.  What had she been thinking?  Why did she leave behind the young man who loved her since childhood?

Mary bought a one-way ticket for home.  Gladys was too busy chatting with Monica at the Union Station cafe to pay much notice to Mary.

They parted.  Mary’s sister would always be her sister, not her best friend.

Her best friend, she now understood, was Ron.

Ron stood on the platform of the Erie-Lackawanna station, clutching a recent telegram.  He looked to the west and heard a distant train whistle.


ACT 2–Gary ate sand that June morning on the beach of Normandy.  He never thought of his own safety when he did what he thought should be done.  He never thought of his home or mother.  He didn’t have time to think about anything except to gain ground and help his comrades.

Tiny grains of sand were still lodged under his fingernails when they lowered his casket into the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery.

His mother clutched a medal.  It wasn’t a Purple Heart, it was Distinquished Service Cross.


ACT 3–Mavis sat in the waiting room of St. Basil’s Hospital.  She could hear the beeping of the respirator.

Three months later, Mavis and the love of her life, strolled along a snowy avenue in a small New England Town.  She paused to drop an envelope into the post box.  It contained a check made out to Kerry’s Funeral Home.  The next morning, fresh flowers would be placed on her husband’s grave.