A Visit To A Foreign Land

Life was getting a little repetitious at Rainbow Lake, here in the heart of the Northern Adirondacks.  My office Indoor/Outdoor weather station seemed to be having a battery problem.  The outside temperature indicator sometimes showed no digits at all.  Not wanting to check the red-liquid filled thermometer nailed to the post under the deck, I was forced to go upstairs to ascertain the ambient air temperature.  I couldn’t go into the screened-in porch because that was just the same as going outside.  So, I was forced to check the Indoor/Outdoor unit that sits on my window sill above the sink.  I didn’t fully trust that one either because I haven’t changed the battery in 14 years…but it somehow kept giving me the correct outside temperature.

The Radio Shack AA’s really blow my mind, but at least it prevented me from having to find my fly-fishing thermometer and stand on the porch.  I’m telling you this because I didn’t want to go out again when I knew it was -9 F., again for the seventeenth day in a row.  I could see from my kitchen window that there was at least 8 feet of snow on the front deck and I would have to shovel a tunnel (not a path, a tunnel) from the front door to the car.  I didn’t want to attempt this because I haven’t seen the car in about 10 days, so I wasn’t sure it was still there.  Maybe it was stolen.  Maybe my wife took it to Saranac Lake to replace the battery again and forgot to tell me about it.  I didn’t really know, all I could see was a mound of snow about 17 feet high in the approximate location of where the driveway used to be.

My life?  I would go down to my office and start a blog.  After running out of anything to say, I’d come up to the dining room table and make a few Scrabble moves on my laptop.  When I realized I was going to lose again to my lovely daughter in Orting, WA., or my friend in Australia (where it was about 117 F), I’d go find a book to read.  After getting halfway through The Fanged Princess, written by an eighteen year old author, Elizabeth Wheatley, who already had written several other teen vampire fantasies, I would stand in front of the picture window and think of the last episode of “Breaking Bad” or try to spot a wolf or bear crossing Rainbow Lake.  Boredom was setting in.

I needed a vacation.

It didn’t take many seconds to decide where we would go for a weekend get-a-way from the cold and snow of the Adirondacks.

We’d go to north, to Montreal.  Yes, there I could hone my skills in French.  After all, I knew the words for butter, milk, street and stop.  Anything else I needed to know, I could pick up as I went along.

We packed light and after filling the car with 6 or 7 bags, we headed North on the Northway.  It really felt good to put the pedal to the metal and put some miles behind us, after all, the speed limit changed at the border to 100.  Let me tell you, that felt good.  You can’t even do that in any of the states, except maybe Texas or Ohio.  I proudly handed over our passports, careful to keep my thumb over my entrance visa to Somalia.  Sixty-two miles later, we were checking into a quaint Montreal hotel.  We were given a room on the 32nd floor of the Marriott.

One of our first stops was the Museum of Fine Arts and saw some really good art.  Curiously, many of the paintings were done by Canadians.  I couldn’t find anything done by Da Vinci anywhere.

Canadians are a rather peaceful nation.  Unlike the U.S.A., they tend not to start wars.  So, it was comforting to see a horrid weapon of killing turned into an interesting object of art, like this:


Or this, I think it was called “Contemplation with Flower”


After we finished at the Museum of Fine Arts, (which was free, I wish to add…the way all art should be) we decided it was time to begin looking for a place for dinner.  We got a recommendation for a place called Dominion.  It was a superb meal.  I went back to the hotel and wrote a 5-star review for the establishment.

While at the bistro, I did run across a few curious things.  Now, I’m not normally a “concrete person”, but I see no need to display an untruth.  After getting my coat, I needed to use the loo (notice my use of a Euro term?).  There by a staircase that led downstairs (always a bad thing to do in a bar/restaurant) was this sign:


So, I went downstairs in search of water in the closet.  After searching behind some doors, some woman screamed something at me in French after I opened one.  How was I to know Femmes had something to do with women?  My, the Canadians can be so suspicious.  I finally found the source of the water.  Now, I’ve been in not just a few Gents rooms in NYC and many other cities, but nearly all had some kind of copper or porcelain sink.  Not here, at this 5-star establishment.  This is what I found:


I washed without wasting time (or water) and we headed back to the hotel.  The pool and jacuzzi were still opened and since I was still suffering from soreness in my lower back (I had surgery in December, did I ever mention that in a blog?) I decided I would take advantage of the hot tub.

I dressed for the water, and went down stairs.  I grabbed a US magazine and put my foot in the hot water.  Luckily, no one but the attendant across the large room with the pool could hear my subtle screams and curses.  I know the Canadians operate on the metric system, but I didn’t need a conversion table to tell that the water was about 209 F.  I was sweating even before I got the bottom of my swim suit wet, which took about twenty-five minutes.  I lowered my body, figuring that the Montreal hospitals could do wonders with second degrees burns of my lower torso.  I looked at the bubbling water to see if patches of skin were floating like the chicken fat that used to roll around in the pot of chicken soup my grandmother used to make.  I read somewhere that the human body sheds its epidermis once every seven years.  I was doing all of mine in thirty-five minutes.

But, what finally drove me out of the hot tub was the US magazines articles about Kim Kardashian and her weight loss.  I tossed the magazine onto the pile of French editions of Elle and went back to the room to see how long it would take me to look less like a red crustacean and more like a primate.

Back home, I could now sit at the dentist’s office or hair-cutters and ignore the copies of US magazine.

After all, I already knew that Kim could fit into a size 2 jean.

This Old House

There is so much to be done when your last surviving parent dies.  My father passed away nearly ten years to the day and I can remember so much of the aftermath that my brother, wife and I had to deal with.  The lawyers, the probate, the will, endless medical records, phone calls, funeral arrangement and other decisions more numerous to mention.

Some of that process was unbearable.  I went through hundreds of family photos, many were unlabeled, cracked and yellowed.  Who were these people? When was this shot taken?  I found a few to mount and have on view during the wake.  Each one of the pictures that I could recognize brought along a thousand memories.

There were papers to shred that contained medical information that no one needed ever know about.  There were old tax forms from the late 1970’s that he thought he needed to keep.

Then there was the house.  Dealing with the rooms and contents was something I had dreaded for years.  My father, you see, never liked to throw things away.  He felt that when the next World War or Great Depression came again, these were items he might need.

To be fair, he realized this was going to be a problem, so about ten years before his death, he began to “clean things out” as he put it.

“I’ve been in the cellar and have some trash.  I’m cleaning things out,” he would say on the phone.  I listened as I sat in my apartment in Manhattan with him at the other end of the line, in our family home in Owego, New York.

So, on the next visit, I would ask about the trash.  He would point to a box, about the size that would hold a case of beer.  I went to the back porch where the box sat and I opened it.  Inside was about five empty gallon cans that once held paint.  Paint that was applied to one of our bedrooms about 1968.  I folded the box closed and thought about the “stuff” in the house.  I knew someday there would be a job to do–and that job was going to fall on my brother, my wife and myself.

To put things in a little better perspective, I should tell you that my mother passed away ten years before he did.  That gave him nearly ten years in a big old house by himself.

Then something happened that was to set in motion a long series of events that were to culminate on a July day, the 14th to be exact, because it was my son’s birthday.  It begins with his diagnosis of a lesion.  It was terminal.

The phone rang at our apartment in New York.  It was my father.  My wife picked up the extension first.  She spoke with  him for few moments before I got the other phone to my ear.  My dad was in mid-sentence–I heard him crying and saying, with difficulty, how proud he was of me. (I had just learned I was in total remission from a rare leukemia).

Before I knew it, we were going through the papers and beginning the process of cleaning out the house.

The house.

My parents bought this big Queen Anne in 1945.  I was born in 1947, so this is the house where mom and dad brought me in early June of ’47.  It was the home of my infancy, childhood, teenage years and adulthood.  When I left for college in 1965, the house ceased to be my home, as such, it was a place where I would visit or live for a short time.  It  was my home but only in that unique way that is buried in the phrase, “You can’t go home again”.

As I went from room to room, cleaning and gleaning, I was like an archeologist, peeling away the layers of several lives.  I would sit with a box trying to decide what would stay and what would go, what to leave in and what to take out.  Memories would push me against the wall while I thought of all that had transpired in the old place.

I was the youngest of four boys.  There were five bedrooms.  Each of our rooms was our castle.  Each room defined who we were as boys.

I recalled building a house of blocks around our cat while it slept in the middle of the living room.  The train set around the Christmas tree.  The parakeet that opened its door and flew out of an open window.  I recalled the late summer haze and crickets from the Brick Pond.  The river bank where I capsized in a canoe.  The Old Fort on the adjacent property where we had lethal apple fights.  The living room where my mother would host Home Bureau meetings.  The card parties my parents threw–I would peek through the wood rungs of the bannister and see a room full of blue smoke.  Once, on the morning after one of these parties, I came down and found long-necked beer bottles in various places.  I was a curious brat, so I looked around to make sure of my privacy, and took a gulp from a bottle of Utica Club.  How could I have known that someone had used the bottle as an ash tray.  But, luck was with me–we had a downstairs bathroom where I could vomit in peace.

I listened to my first Bob Dylan song on our Hi-Fi.  A friend brought it over.

“God, this guy can’t sing,” I said.  I went back to my Dion albums.  That same room is where where I kissed my childhood sweetheart, while Ray Charles sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or Roy Orbison breaking my heart with “Crying”.

Then the attic.  I was faced with getting rid of items that had been laying in the same place for over fifty years.  I did it all like a robot and I was to pay the price dearly for all this loss a few years later–but that’s another story.

So, two years after my past was driven away in the back of a green pickup truck, the house was ready to be sold.  I felt as if our family practically discovered Owego we had been there so long.  But in an old town, sixty years is thought of as yesterday.  It’s as if we had moved in yesterday.

But we didn’t.  This was my house of memories, adventures, laughter, romances and unbearable heartaches.

The new owners wanted the keys.  The agent had let them in and they waited for me on that July 14th.  I went up the steps of my porch and rang the bell, like a fuller brush man, I turned the ornate doorknob that my little boy hands had turned in summer heat and winter cold.  I was let into my living room.  There they were: husband, wife, two somewhat bratty boys and a sulking teenage girl, all goth, all black, who sat by herself on the window seat.

They want to hear some stories about the house, but the most repeated question was “was it haunted?”.  How could I answer that?  Of course it was haunted.  Couldn’t they hear the voices of four boys running by?  The wooden blocks tumbling down when the cat woke up from her nap?  The walls had sixty years of ghost voices still embedded in the plaster.  The floor had sixty years of ghost footfalls.

Was it haunted?  I didn’t think they would want to hear of the ghosts of my departed parents and two brothers.  So I told them a few stories I had heard over the years.  How my older brother settled into his bath near the top of the stairs.  He said he heard the front door open and then steps on the wooden stairs–what spooked him was the fact the footfalls never ended.  I told them how my mother would go into the back yard to do some gardening and then felt, she said, the presence of an Indian standing nearby.  I held back on telling them that one night our cat was in one of the bedrooms and three of the boys, me included, were trying to catch it.  But it looked beyond us and arched her back and hissed.  I looked over at the goth-girl, and saw how pretty she was through the black eyeshadow and Elvira look.  I didn’t tell her that all the boys were convinced that the very window seat she reclined on had the perfect shape of a coffin and that we were all sure that there was a mummified body in there.

I did tell them that there was a room with four doors on the second floor.  You had to take someone in there, close the doors, blindfold them and spin them around to disorient them.  Trying to find the way out was downright puzzling–in a scary way.

But I didn’t tell them that in the space between where I was sitting and where the husband was standing there once appeared a disembodied head that floated in the pre-dawn light.  My brother swore he saw this after he woke from an early morning nap.

So, the time came.  I shook hands and without a second thought handed over the keys to the big oak front door.  How could I dwell–the tears were welling in my eyes.  I bid them a hasty good-bye and good luck with the old place.

I left one last time through the door that I was carried crying to kindergarten, the door I went off to school each day, the door I went out to my Senior Prom and the day I left for college.

I’ve no doubt every family has such a tale to tell–such a house to celebrate and then to mourn.

I heard several years later that the family broke up.  The parents divorced.  Maybe, I thought, just maybe, the house was too haunted for them by my family and the spirit energy that filled each closet and cranny.  Maybe there were too many people living in that big old house.

I have not set foot in the house since July 14, 2006, and I don’t think I ever will.  I closed the door behind me that day, and I locked it.

420 Front St.-

The Night They Pulled The Plug in Louisiana


It was a long time ago–perhaps the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.

It was the wrong time, the wrong place and the wrong evening to be holding a pair of tickets to a Steppenwolf concert.

I attended college in the deep south in the mid-1960’s.  In itself, there’s nothing strange about that.  The problem was that I was from Upstate New York—I was a Yank.  Keep in mind that the march in Selma had taken place only a few months before my arrival.  The Freedom Riders (northern agitators) were a recent memory.  The first view I had of my college town was that of a KKK member (in full pointed cap and gown) directing traffic to a rally.  I found out soon that the 100 years since the end of the Civil War was like yesterday to many of my classmates.

I was looked upon with suspicion because I was…

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The Night They Pulled The Plug in Louisiana

It was a long time ago–perhaps the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.

It was the wrong time, the wrong place and the wrong evening to be holding a pair of tickets to a Steppenwolf concert.

I attended college in the deep south in the mid-1960’s.  In itself, there’s nothing strange about that.  The problem was that I was from Upstate New York—I was a Yank.  Keep in mind that the march in Selma had taken place only a few months before my arrival.  The Freedom Riders (northern agitators) were a recent memory.  The first view I had of my college town was that of a KKK member (in full pointed cap and gown) directing traffic to a rally.  I found out soon that the 100 years since the end of the Civil War was like yesterday to many of my classmates.

I was looked upon with suspicion because I was one of only a few Yanks attending college there at the time.

Louisiana, I learned, was actually two states.  South Louisiana was Cajun country.  Mostly Catholic, the population of the lower half of the state loved a good time–beer, shrimp and the jazz of Bourbon Street.

It was very different in the northern half of the state where my college was located.  This was the heart of the “Bible Belt” south.  Strict morality and antebellum southern charm was the norm.  It would be fair to say that in the time I was there, I could sense a lack of “liberal” attitudes and a strong Baptist belief in the evils of good old rock and roll.

Somehow, the very popular group, Steppenwolf, got itself booked in the local civic center.  And I had tickets.

Their major hit and theme song, “Born To Be Wild”, was to become the key song to “Easy Rider”.  I couldn’t wait to rock out to “Get your motors running…”  A civic center full of youths were of the same mind.  I knew I was in for a rocking’ evening.  Then, only a few songs into the show, things went wrong.

The group was in the middle of another of their hits, “The Pusher”.  When John Kay, the lead singer, sang the words: “Goddamn the pusher man”.  The authorities in charge of the arena decided that such a curse word was not allowable.  They seemed to have missed the whole point of the song which is to curse the pusher–curse the evil.

All they had to hear was “Goddamn”, and that was enough.

We were all on our feet when the music stopped.  The band looked around, searching for a wiring error.  The stage lights went up.  Someone had pulled the plug, literally, on the concert.

Amid the confusion and yelling, the band left the stage.  Someone in a dark suit, looking like a cross between Pastor Bill and a funeral director, took the mike and mumbled something I couldn’t understand.  The house lights were all on.

The audience was not liking what was happening.  The shouting grew louder.  The tension grew.  The anger of the ticket holders rose.

Finally, after about 10 minutes into this fiasco, John Kay and the band returned to the stage.  What he said into the mike, I can still hear to this day.

“Thank you.  But we’re never going to play in this f#@king town again.”

Then they went full-tilt into “Born To Be Wild”.  The house went crazy.  I wasn’t rocking to the music.  I just stood there and looked at the cheap seats behind the stage and on the upper level.  These teenagers were dancing in the aisles—the scene was something like you’ve seen in the film “Woodstock”.  I felt a profound sorrow for these kids—they only wanted to rock out and dance.  They weren’t pot smoking hippies—they were just young teenagers dancing on their seats, starved for some of the ’60s magic.

They looked to me like they were born to be wild…if just for a few minutes.


The Scrabble Game at the End of the World


This title of this post is something of a misnomer.  On an oblate spheroid like the earth, there is no “end”.  It’s been said that an ant crawling around on a basketball can do so forever…infinity…it’s just stuck on one dimension, but still.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the concept of the “end of the world”, not in a rapture sense, of course, is really quite fascinating.  Think about it.  If you were a merchant seaman or solo sailor and you sailed off the end of the earth, it could ruin your whole day.  And the water.  Where does the ocean go at the end? It must flow off the edge like a celestial waterfall beyond human comprehension.  But where does the water actually go?

But I digress.

For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, we tend to think that’s where all the action is.  I mean, who really lives in Paraguay except escaped ex-Nazi’s?  We’ve seen these fascinating photos of Antarctica, but we all know those pictures of Robert Falcon Scott, Shackleton and others were probably taken on a sound stage somewhere in Nevada.  But, several months ago, I happened to take on a Random Player in my search for a Scrabble partner.  I was getting tired of getting beaten, endlessly and without mercy by my son-in-law (isn’t there some kind “handicap” situation given to gray-haired fathers-in-law?), my daughter and my wife.  All of these people, who are supposed to love me in some way, always found ways to put letters on the screen to make words that I truly doubt really exist.  I’m a well-read literate kind of guy, but some of the words, Bob, my son-in-law, came up with stretch credulity to the limit.

So, my new friend, I’ll call her Jackie (mainly because that’s her real name), happens to live in Australia.  Now I never played Scrabble, board game or otherwise with a citizen from Australia, ever!  I checked out her stats and saw she was only a few points ahead of me on the win percentage. Everyone else was about double my score.  Here, I thought, is someone who won’t play and run (one woman I challenged as a guest had something like 7,000 games and about 400 Bingos.  She beat the crap out of me and never played me again).  Jackie and I played a few games and we were more or less equally matched, though she beat me more than I did her.  We kept playing.  It got me thinking about Australia and I began to recall how at one time I thought of going there to see the country.  Then I found out just getting there would cost a billion dollars.  The flight alone takes about as long as a lunar mission.  Maybe someday…

I started recalling what I already knew about the place.  I know that Olivia Newton-John is an Aussie as well as several other actress/actors, I just couldn’t think of their names.  The only one I was familiar with was Crocodile Dundee.  I thought the character was interesting and fun to watch in the movies.  Then I found out that Crocodile Dundee was based on a real character.  That’s fine until I read the “real” one was shot and killed by Australian police in a stand-off.  He must have been an interesting guy…not that many people get taken out by the police during shoot-outs.  America, however, is nicely endowed with such characters like this, like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger.

As a retired science teacher, I had a pretty good handle on the wildlife that lives in the Outback…but they don’t have names like the rest of the world.  We have bears and deer.  Germany has wild boars.  Africa has lions and elephants.  But in Australia!  Why can’t they just have regular animals with regular animal names?  No, the Aussies live amidst such creatures with names like: Galah, Frilled Necked Lizard, Dingo, Rainbow Larikeet, Phascogale (?), Osyter catcher, Quokka, Quoll, Dugong, Yabby, Wallaroo, Numbat and the Emu (great for the N.Y.Times crosswords), to name just a few.

And, what is it about the rabbits?  They brought in a brace of rabbits some decades ago and they bred.  Boy, did they breed.  When you say someone f#%ks like a rabbit, you’ve got a really hot ticket on your hands.  Then the rabbits ate all the grass in one part of the country so they had to build a rabbit-proof fence.  If you look at an aerial photograph of those areas, one side of the fence is actually green (that would be the grass), and the other side is denuded of any vegetation (that would be due to the fact that the rabbits ate everything).

Jackie and I are still playing against each other, sometimes the games are nail-biting and some times she buries me…every so often, I bury her.  After all, I went to England several times so I know what a QUID and a BLOKE are.  I’m just so smart.

Why am I telling you all this?  I consider it my mission in life to prepare people…that’s why I became a teacher.  So, if you ever find yourself playing Scrabble against someone from Australia, keep your Official Dictionary handy.

And, if you ever travel there, wear boots.  You just never know what’s down there by your foot beside rabbit crap.