The Fabulous Life of a Published Author

Many writers dream of seeing their published works on the shelf of a bookstore.  Think of the heady feeling of walking into a Barnes & Nobel and seeing your name and book among the thousands of bestsellers.  That’s never been my goal in life.  Selling books means you make money and making money means you move into a higher tax bracket.  Who needs that?

Ok, I’ve written four books, and I get a royalty check once a month from Amazon.  I’ve spent hundreds of hours planning, plotting, writing and formatting (my wife did that part) and I actually get something ($) back in return for all that agony of being cursed with such a creative mind.  I make so much in one month that I can now go to a restaurant and order a Caesar’s salad instead of a regular tossed green.  It’s a life of wild self-indulgence.  I now know what it’s like to be John Steinbeck.  I don’t mean this in a literal sense because he died on December 20, 1968.  I now know what Hemingway’s life was like…sometimes I can even understand why he was “cleaning” his shotgun on July 2, 1961.

But I’d like to say that since bookstores are going to totally disappear from our lives in about six years, I’ve gotten more satisfaction from finding my books in the Public Libraries of America.  It is in these great institutions that my volumes will remain on a shelf for all time.  Actually, that’s not true.  I found out that a book’s “borrow” slip where a little grey-haired lady or an English major stamps the due date, needs to have dates stamped on them.  If no one checks a book out (say, twice a year) then the product of your sweat and tears will be in the next Fund Raising Book Sale.

[So if you’re in the Coburn Free Library in Owego, NY and you don’t check out my four books, they will sell them for 10 cents.  Go ahead, walk past me on the shelf.  It’ll be on your conscience, not mine.]

Recently, I toured the Saranac Lake Public Library to check on how my books were doing.  I felt like a famous surgeon making rounds of his patients at the Mayo Clinic.  I was very surprised to find all my books were shelved properly and had a decent number of check-outs.  I was even more pleased at the company I keep on these shelves.  In Fiction, I’m right next to Jennifer Egan, a very famous author and editor of The Best American Short Stories of 2014.

For those of you who are not familiar with Jennifer, this is a recent publicity head shot of her:

JenniferEgan

[Jennifer Egan (no relation), but a guy can wish, can’t he?]

Here’s proof of my claim:

JenniferEganShelf

[There I am…just don’t ask who Lesley Egan is, I have no idea.]

I went over to the Non-fiction section.  Again, there I was, with two books.  This time, however they buried me between two biographies of two relatively unknown individuals.

See what I mean?:

EinsteinEdison

I went straight to a computer and Googled these two people.  I found these images:

einstein-tongue-out

[A guy named Einstein]

einsteinOnBike

[Same guy, but on a bicycle.]

Edison

[The Edison guy with a funny horn-thing. He reminds me of a teacher I had once in high school who also had a sore left hip.]

So, what is the moral of this story?  What is the point of showing you photos of my books, when you can go to your computer and order them all yourself?  Well, you don’t have to go to the library then, do you?  A lot of quiet old men sit and read the newspaper in libraries…for free!  And, chances are, there are no book stores with 85 miles of your home.

But, there is a distinct possibility that you may not like to read and that you don’t really like me very much.  Then there’s always the option of Books-on-Tape.  The only problem is…none of my writing is on tape.

Not to worry, though, if you send me lots of money, I’ll gladly read a copy of my book into a tape recorder…I’ll even mention you by name.  There’s something heady in that, let me tell you.

Maybe then I can afford the extra salsa at our local Tex-Mex restaurant.  Can you believe they make you pay for that?

A Winter Tragedy in the Unforgiving North Country

This is a heartbreaking story of a misjudgment made 87 years ago today.  The heart of the sadness is that this is a true event.

In the summer of 2014, I was wandering through St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Chateaugay, New York.  I was searching for certain headstones to photograph for ancestor-seekers that lived too far away to visit the cemetery itself.

I paused in the warm sunlight to check my list of requests.  I looked down for a moment and noticed I was standing next to a ground-level slab of granite with a very unusual word carved below the names.

The inscription read:

DAUGHTERS

INA  AGE 14

LILLIAN  AGE 11

DIED JAN. 25, 1928

BLIZZARD

The word blizzard struck me hard.  I’ve been in blizzards, but only indoors or in a car…my life was never in danger.

I photographed the stone and nearby I located the parents headstone.  I was intrigued but soon put the matter aside.  A few months later I was visiting the Mining Museum at nearby Lyon Mountain.  I picked up a copy of History of Churubusco by Lawrence P. Gooley.

Later, while browsing through the pages of local lore, legends and history, I came across the story of what happened on that Jan. 25, 1928.  The day of the blizzard.

Omitting some details, here is the gist of that tragic night of Jan. 24th:

The family of Gilbert Dunn consisted of five children.  On Wednesday morning, the 24th, four of the children set off to school, as usual.

A winter storm began shortly after they left.  Mrs. Dunn hitched a team of horses to a light sled and set off to bring the girls back home.  She made it as far as a neighbor’s home about a mile away as the intensity of the storm increased.  The neighbor told her to stay in the house while he would ride on to the school, a short distance away, and bring the girls back.

This he did.  He then attempted to get Mrs. Dunn and the four children to stay the night because the blizzard was now raging.  The mother, at this point, make a fatal error in judgement.  She felt that her husband would worry about them so she set out for her farm.

The sled got stuck in the mounting snow.  She covered the kids with the few blankets from the sled.

Soon the drifting snow buried her, the children and the sled.

Gilbert, the father was frantic.  He made a few searches along the farm road and found nothing.  He then assumed that his wife and family were riding out the storm at a neighbors.  Instead, they were nearby, buried in the snow bank.

A major effort to locate them began the next day.  They found the sled and the children under ten inches of snow.  The mother survived as did one of the daughters.  Ina and Lillian did not.  Later, Mrs. Dunn, speaking to the reporters from her hospital bed said that Ina knew how bad things looked.  She begged her mother to keep her warm and when she realized that was impossible, she curled at her mother’s legs and began to drift off to sleep…but not before saying: “Goodbye momma, I’m going to die.”

Such are the ways of the North Country when Nature displays a strength that is stronger than the frailty of humans.

If Lillian had survived that night (and the other challenges of life) she would be 98 years today.  That’s feasible.

If Ina had survived, she would be 101 today.  Possible, but statistically unlikely.

The next time you wander a cemetery for any reason, pick a wildflower and place it on the stone of those who left this life before their life really began.

Then say a little prayer for the innocence of youth.

TombstoneFrozenGirls

[The two illustrations are from History of Churubusco by Lawrence P. Gooley. Bloated Toe Publishing, 2010.]

SledInStorm

The Impossibly Long Life of a Snowflake

CedarSnow

It’s a simple act of nature.  A billion snowflakes drifting slowly earthward…sometimes rising, sometimes blown sideways…but always downward.  If they each made a sound like a bird, someone stepping out onto a frozen porch in the North Country of the Adirondacks would be deafened.  But each flake makes a sound only it can hear.

It all seems so simple…but it isn’t…not at all.

If a snowflake had a mind, it would have long minutes to think about where and how it would end its existence as a crystal.

Two Hydrogen atoms bond with an Oxygen atom.  That’s a water molecule.  You can do a great deal with one of these.  Boil it, freeze it, drink it, hydrate your body or pee it out.  It’s still H2O.  Nothing’s changed.

With the aid of the sun, the water molecule becomes agitated.  It evaporates and, defying gravity, ends up in the troposphere.  They find each other and cling to one another, like lovers often will.  A raindrop is formed.

It remains in the sky for an indeterminate length of time, but everything changes up there.  Nothing of the water that we see stays the same.  Sunsets come and go.  Sometimes there is a red sky in the morning.  The castles of cumulus clouds may take the shape of trees, mythical beasts, camels, people or…castles.  But, if you blink, it’s morphed into something else.  A cloud that looked to you like a rear molar can look like 3-masted schooner in 2.6 seconds.

But, something many people don’t realize is that every raindrop (and snowflake) has a nucleus.  Not like a living cell’s nucleus…but a microscopic kernel of something…maybe dust, maybe a Silver Oxide crystal, whatever.  The water molecule must have something to cling to…just like people.

If you catch a snowflake on your wrist and take it indoors, it will melt.  You would need a microscope to see whatever the condensation nuclei is.  And then you may have a hard time seeing it.  But, every falling raindrop has this tiny bit of something at its center.

Last night, over the North Country of the Adirondacks, trillions of these flakes fell.  Descending through the blackness that only a winter sky and a New Moon can provide.  In this world, there is no free choice (at least that we can discern), so the flakes can alight on anything.

If the snowflake falls directly onto the ground…its trip is over…for now.  When the melting of springtime comes its liquid water again and then its time to wait in a lake or pond.  Its waiting for the sun to start the process once again.

Nothing changes and everything changes.

In my front yard, some flakes have made me a fortunate man.  My visual world is made more beautiful by the flakes spending a day or two on a cedar branch or, finding just that one tiny surface to hold it in place, along with several million other flakes to make winter patterns that are so commonplace yet so sublimely awesome.

Funny how a stray twig or errant branch that would hit me in the face can become the bearer and framer of such an amazing art of nature.

Today, I stood knee-deep in the snow of what passes for our ‘lawn’.  I stepped close to a cedar branch.  I leaned forward to try to count the uncountable crystal flakes.  I got to ten and remembered that no two flakes could ever be exactly the same.  I didn’t want to count any twice so I backed away just as my breath began to melt tiny flecks of white.

It’s going to be -10 F tonight so the snow will be on the branches in the morning.  But soon a breeze will clear off the tiny cedar needles.  The sun will melt those that remained.

Everything will change.  But next week, it will all start over again.

Right now, as I write this, a water crystal is forming.  It’s just waiting for the Great Goddess of Nature to wave her hair or whisper a breeze that allows the cycle over my head to continue.

BranchesSnow

OnEveryBranch

SnowOnOurRoad

[Along our road with a forecast of -11 F]

 

Ice Cold Beer

FrozenLakeColby

I got lost once on my way to buying a beer at a lonely bar.  There’s a good story coming so don’t blink, look away or try to multi-task…or you’ll miss it.

Being lost can mean many things to many people.

You can say: “I’m lost” in the middle of calculus class.  Or, you can say: “I’m lost” when you’ve missed the proper exit on I-95 when your destination is Atlantic City.  In a confessional, you can wipe away your tears and whisper “I’m lost” to the priest.  It’s very fair to say “I’m lost” when you get to page 378 of “Infinite Jest.”  Trust me, no one will blame you.  It’s quite easy to say “I’m lost” when you make a few missteps in a dark forest, and it’s nearly midnight.  When the girl of your dreams tells you that she’s found another lover, you have every right to say “I’m lost.”

When you wake up one morning and remember that your life partner has been dead for a year and five months, you can be slam-dunked with the “I’m lost” feeling.

Yes, there are many ways to get lost, be lost, stay lost or just lose your moral compass and find yourself…well, lost.

Admittedly, it’s a little harder to get lost these days than it was twenty years ago.  Part with a few hundred dollars and you’re hard pressed to make an excuse for getting lost.  With satellites, EZ passes, security monitors and personal Facebook data, few people in our part of the world can really get physically lost anymore.  Your location is known by tens of thousands of people.

But, if it ever happens…your entire sense of the world can change in three seconds.  It can be extremely disconcerting to your spatial orientation to be in a situation where the only direction you are sure of is down…because all you can see are the boots on your feet.

I was lost once.  It was back in the pre-technological age of 1977 when a $3.95 plastic compass was all you needed to tell where north was.  I didn’t even have that.

The memory of that afternoon will never leave me.  I can still close my eyes and feel the tangible world around me being lost amid the swirls of a snowfall so dense and intense that anything two feet in front of me was a blast of wind-driven snow.

In the summer of 1976, I went to Alaska to assist in geological mapping on the Juneau Icefield.  That season I had some difficulty keeping up with the others on cross-country skis while wearing a full backpack.  I was scheduled to return in 1978.  I knew my skills on the snow needed improvement so I did what had to be done.  I taught myself how to downhill ski.  It was the winter of 1977 and one Saturday I decided to drive to Elk Mountain in the Poconos, rent the skis, poles and bindings and then learn to ski.  I was an underpaid teacher at the time so I felt that if that 8-year old boy over there could do it, so could I.  So I bought a lift ticket to the top of Elk with this thought in mind:

“When I get off the lift at the top, I’ll have to get down.”  That was my rational.  Some people call it an accident waiting to happen, but I called it a cheap way to learn how to ski.

I became a fair skier and can say, honestly, that I never took a bad fall and never broke any part of my body that I would need on Monday morning.

My next task was to become a competent nordic skier.  That was not as easy as it sounds.  In those years, the only people who cross-country skied were Swedes, Norwegians and a few Finnish with a dozen Laplanders thrown in.  I was Irish.  I knew my wool and my ale, but I did not know the proper way to be good at this sport.  At the time, I lived in a remote farm-house.  There were plenty of fields to practice but there was the problem of barbed-wire and stone walls that surrounded the pastures and open spaces.  I tried a few golf courses, but the snowmobilers quickly took those spaces for themselves.

But, not all was lost.  I lived a few miles from a lake.  They are flat and most of the time have thick ice layers.  With the exception of a few people who, for reasons I could never understand, would drill holes in the ice and stand or sit for hours in temperatures of 4 F to catch a fish, I had the lake to myself.  Luckily, there weren’t too many of these types around.

~~~

It was a Sunday afternoon in January and I felt like having a beer.  Now, most normal people would drive a car to the bar and go inside to sit and drink.

I decided to ski across the lake and have a beer after I stuck my skis in a snow mound beside the front door.

I parked the car directly across the lake from the bar in question.  About a mile and a half separated me and my car from the beer I was hoping for.  I took my gear down to the lake’s edge, snapped on my skis and took off with the distant bar in full sight.

Then it happened.

The western sky quickly turned dark, like the clouds had been waiting for me to get about halfway across the ice.

The actual skiing was great.  Smooth wind packed snow with an occasional patch of black ice.  It was on the open and totally slick ice that I had nothing to edge into so my skis began behaving like skates.  I was doing figure 8’s.  I even did a figure 3 but I had no idea how that happened.  I decided to take off the skis and walk across the large glassy ice floes.

The clouds were moving closer and getting darker.

The snow squall began without warning and became so intense that I lost all reference points, except, as mentioned above, my boots.  I didn’t have goggles but I had black horn-rim glasses.  These quickly became covered with an inch of sleet-like snow.  I couldn’t see…and even if I could, there was nothing to see.  I turned around twice which succeeded in only disorienting me totally.

I was lost in a snowstorm on a lake in the wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania.

I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat down and laid the skis across my knees.

This is how they’ll find me in three weeks when the storm lets up, I thought.  Or, maybe the spring melt would come and I would sink to the bottom, baffling SCUBA divers for years to come.  I might even become a legend as a result.  Or at least a folk song that the country & western band would play at the very bar where I was attempting to get my beer.

The squall ended as quickly as it began.  I could see the lights of the bar (it was dark now).  I continued on my way.

As I expected to do, I stuck my skis and poles into a snow bank by the front door, went in and ordered a beer.  I even had two.

But I asked for a ride back across the lake to my car.

Skiing and drinking can be a lethal combination.

SkisCrevassAK

[Yes, this is me straddling a crevasse. It was taken in Alaska, not Pennsylvania. I just thought you’d find it interesting.]

An Ice Queen and Prometheus on a New York City Night

GirlOnIce

A month ago I wouldn’t be able to stand where I’m standing tonight.  Impossible.  Unless I was willing to share the same physical space with seven other people.

I’m looking down at the skating rink at Rockefeller Center.  Four weeks ago, thousands of tourists and locals were cramped in and around the small park that encloses the rink.  The tree!  There was the world-famous Christmas tree, with thousands of lights, in front of one of the entrances to the former NBC Building (“30 Rock”).

Tonight, only a few dozen people wandered about taking photos of themselves.  Nearly everyone was oblivious to the rink below…there was no one down there.  I leaned against the stone wall and took a closer look.  After all, this was one of the most iconic New York City sights of them all.

I saw a young woman waiting for the Zamboni machine to complete its hypnotic oval loops.

She would be the first on the smooth new coating of ice.

My mind went back to a night in the early 1980’s.  I was in the City with my daughter, Erin.  I had just purchased a single ticket and rental skates for her…at a fair price, I may say.  The total cost was about $12.00.  (Tonight the price topped $40.00.)  That night, years ago, was New Years Eve.  It was 11:00 pm and this was the final skate of the day…of the year.

Erin was first in line behind the chain gate.  When the attendant opened the latch, my daughter would be the first onto the ice.

At 11:00 pm sharp, the skaters took the ice.  Erin skated like the ten-year-old she was, a little awkward, a little unsteady, but full of self-confidence and grace.  I was proud of her courage to take such a public risk.  If she fell, thousands would watch her hit the ice.

“But, dad, what if I fall?  Everyone will be looking.”

These words never left her lips…even if she ever thought about them.

Tonight, I had those same fears for this complete stranger  On this chilly evening, she had only two sets of eyes watching her.

Those of Prometheus.  And mine.

She skated out to the center of the rink, directly toward the gold-guilded god that looked out over the ice.  She advanced slowly, like a virgin to be sacrificed.

Watching her.  Watching the way she moved, I knew she was never looking for the fire from Prometheus, his approval or mine.

She was skating for herself.  She took her position to begin a long and sinuous trip around the rink.

I turned and began to walk toward 5th Avenue to hail a taxi.  I didn’t need to see anymore.  She had all the attention she needed and it was in her own soul.  I glanced back toward the fire-god and the rink.  A few cameras flashed.  The skater, this woman unknown to me, would end up on a camera roll and later erased or a Facebook post to a cousin in Reno.

No, I didn’t need to see anymore.  Her first confident steps told me her whole story.

Park Avenue on a Rainy Day

ParkAVe

I am standing in the rain at the intersection of the Mythical Avenue and Ordinary Life Street in New York City.  If there’s a map at your side, look for where E. 92nd Street crosses Park Avenue.  That’s where I am standing, safely protected from the speeding traffic, on the landscaped Mall that separates the uptown two lanes from the two downtown lanes.  In the Spring and Summer, the various block associations would pool their resources and have the Mall planted with thousands of  flowers, usually tulips…so red and so yellow that your eyes would water.  During the holidays, the small trees would be lit up in beautiful lights.  All along a quiet oasis of real earth on a strip that extends for fifty blocks to the south and another hundred-fifty blocks to the north…give or take a few. You’ve got a map, count them.

It’s a mid-January afternoon and the trees are bare and the planting areas are mulched.  I saw several faded and broken blue holiday lights remaining on one of the trees.

When I was growing up, I loved to watch old movies…those set in the ’30’s and ’40’s and New York City was the backdrop.  Park Avenue became for me, as well as with much of America, the “street of dreams” where the rich lived in enormous apartment houses.  “Penthouses” and “Park Avenue” were one and the same.  No wealthy person lived in a penthouse on First Avenue…at least not in the movies.  In these old films, the limousines would pick up the Cary Grants, the Ginger Rogers, the Ray Millands and the Grace Kellys and whisk them away to the Stork Club or the Copa.  No matter what time of day or night, the men wore tuxedos and the women carried themselves like goddesses in satin gowns, boas and ermine.

I am standing in the rain and looking south.  I can barely make out the ghost of a 50+ story building in the mist.  Once upon a time it was famously known as the PAN AM building.  Now, giant letters spell out MET LIFE.  The building sits atop the renowned Grand Central Station.  I’ve heard that Peregrine falcons nest in nooks of the giant neon letters.

South of Grand Central, the avenue becomes Park Avenue South and then ends around 14th Street.  I turn around and look North.  In only four or five blocks the avenue looses its famous allure and continues onto the upper reaches of Spanish Harlem, ending abruptly at the Harlem River Drive.  Much of the northern length is made of three or four-story walk-ups.  But, like most other sections of Manhattan, the luxury high rises are springing up everywhere.  The rentals, co-ops, and condos are growing like ferns on a forest floor.  The cost of a one-bedroom would choke a horse.

But, I’m standing along its Gold Coast.  I watch.  People on corners stick their hands out from under their umbrellas to hail a taxi.  The doormen hail cabs for their tenants.  They help unload the kids from the backseat of a giant S.U.V. or the bags of groceries from Whole Foods.  Sometimes a doorman will sneak away from his post to grab a coffee from a deli on a side street.  The deli displays pastries that would make anyone crave gluten.

A small group of high school girls cross the Avenue, talking so fast it may have been a different language.  At least they’re talking.  Not one of them is on her cell phone.  The girls are in identical kilts and knee socks…the school uniform.  They wear bright pink or green backpacks.  Three teachers lead nine children to an after school program.  The kids are holding a loop on a length of rope.  They are in pairs.  The ninth child is holding hands with the last teacher.  I hope she wasn’t left out.  I prayed she was not excluded from the other eight.  A group of five high school boys, passed the high school girls.  Their pushing and jostling stops for a few minutes.  They’re thinking of the soccer game or the rugby game…or the girls in the kilts.  One or two boys turns to get a last glimpse of the strange group of creatures…these girls.

One of the girls glances back.

There were quite a few school kids on the streets.  I checked on a street map later and found that from where I stood, there were at least 22 schools (mostly private) within an 8 to 10 block radius.  Somewhere I read that the Starbucks on the corner of 96th and Madison was centered in the largest cluster of private schools in America.  Of course.  I remembered that at least two of the girls were clutching a mocha.

A police car, with lights flashing and siren blasting is heading west on 87th.  An ambulance, with lights and siren wailing is running the lights northward to Mount Sinai.  Another, smaller ambulance, no siren and no lights is going south to 76th, toward Lenox Hill Hospital.  I hoped it was empty.  Was it traveling slowly because the occupant was beyond an emergency?

School buses of all sizes crept along the Avenue.

I looked down the Avenue and saw hundreds of red tail lights of cabs attempting to run the stop lights.  The red dots seem to go on as far as Ohio.

It came to me that there were no public buses on Park Avenue.  The only trucks were moving vans.  I surmised that this had a lot to do with the amount of rent along the Avenue and the fact that buses and trucks were not in keeping with the quality of life along one of the richest thoroughfares in America.

I thought again of the old movies.  Those were the glory years of this part of Manhattan.  The glory is still here…for those who can afford the extortion rents (or the condos or the co-ops).  The S.U.V.’s have replaced the Lincoln Town Cars, to some degree, anyway.

When I lived in Manhattan, I was an Upper West Sider.  But the private school I taught in for almost 13 years was on the far east side.  My school was so far east that the East River flowed a few meters below my home room window.  I could see Queens from that window.  I could see the abandoned asylums on what is now Roosevelt Island.

I often walked home and my walk would always take me across Park Avenue.  I would cross slowly, absorbing the history of the fabled avenue.  I was never envious of those who could afford to live in that area.  I knew that no matter who they were or what their portfolio contained, they all had their own broken hearts, pains, guilt, and illnesses everyone else had.  The people had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, the box seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium.  These were movie producers and actors.  I would see ancient ladies with their nurses who were mostly black, being pushed or helped along the Avenue.  This did not surprise me.  There is a great deal of “old money” here and it was for most of its history, a white persons world.  People of color came from the Boroughs as maids and care-givers, nannies and companions.  Many of those old folks probably have forgotten where the family fortune came from in the first place.

Park Avenue is a symbol of all that is dreamy, wealthy, opulent, poor, class-ridden, lonely and depressing in the Greatest City in the World.

Yes, I would cross nearly every school day, wiping sweat from my forehead on warm summer afternoons.  On harsh winter evenings, I would wish for a longer scarf while wading through a foot of snow and small ponds of frozen slush at the corners.

But, in the Spring, I would always stop and smell the flowers–those tulips–those dazzling tulips.

Today and for the next few days, my home was a hotel room.  It’s only a few blocks from the corner of 86th and First Avenue, where I would stand to catch the cross-town bus…when I taught here…when I called New York City my home.

I held firmly to my new blue umbrella as I stood under dripping clouds and watched life happen around me.

On Park Avenue.  On a rainy day.

 

ParkAveMall

 

 

 

 

The Weekend I Took the Moon Rocks Home

MoonRock

Only on rare occasions (once or twice a month) do I check for the black SUV’s in my driveway or parked around the corner on the road where I now live.  I hesitate to give the name of the road–I’m not sure it’s in the Big Computer now.  We only moved here in December of 2011 and I know the wheels of the federal government turn slowly.

But, somewhere in a bunker in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, or in the basement of a pizza shop in a small town outside of Cincinnati, there may very well be a clerk, old now and graying at the temples, that is keeping track of my whereabouts.  I know this because I signed a legal paper promising to do a certain thing with some certain things…and I disobeyed.  I did something with those things that is a federal offense.  I violated my pledge NOT to do those things.  But my scientific curiosity got the better of me.  My only hope is that there is a Statute of Limitations buried in the small print that I neglected to read.  Nobody reads the small print.

I should have thought about that a long time ago.

So, here’s the back story:

I began teaching Earth & Space Science at a school in Kingston, PA in February, 1973.  That would make it 41 years ago if my head math is correct (but I was a science teacher not a math genius).  I was to teach 150+ ninth graders the wonders of earth science (with a bit of astronomy thrown in to get them thinking cosmically).  The only problem was that I had no ‘lab’ facilities at all.  My classroom was the old library room dating from 1914.  I needed things, stuff to demonstrate, pass around, hold on to, and use as many of their senses as possible.

One morning, I found the usual pile of science equipment catalogs and assorted junk mail.  But…one envelope had the coveted return address that so many science teachers watch for.  It was from NASA!  Now, here was something.  NASA didn’t just mass-mail every teacher…there were millions of us out there.

During my ‘prep’ period (read coffee time) I opened the brown manila envelope.

I read the letter and made a decision on the spot.  I wanted to be a part of this.

So, here was their deal.  In an extraordinary educational out-reach program, NASA was willing to loan, to qualified teachers, actual moon rocks!

It seems they had quite a few kilos of them and instead of just keeping them locked away, or loaning them to universities and researchers around the world, they would make a limited number of them available to regular (remember, qualified) science educators…like me.

The catch?  I had to get myself to the Goddard Space Flight Center located on Greenbelt Road in Greenbelt, Maryland to attend an orientation session.  Once I was done, I would receive a certificate that would then be mailed in to obtain (on loan, don’t forget), the samples.

These samples were not just chunks of rock.  They came encased in a plexiglass disc, about twice the size of a hockey puck.  There were three rock samples and three soil samples embedded in the disc.  We couldn’t touch the samples, obviously, just look at them under a binocular microscope (and more importantly, give the students a chance to get a few mm’s away from the moon).

My brother, Dan was in the mood to drive to Maryland in his new mustang.  We found a cheap place to stay and I attended the workshop.

This is where things get a little complicated.  When filling out the application, I had to do the following:

  • Inform my Principal of what was going to arrive via special delivery.
  • Have the Principal agree to keep the travel case locked in the school safe when not in the classroom.
  • Inform the local police.
  • Understand, that these samples were “priceless”, to use NASA’s term.  And, that if they were lost or stolen, I would not be held financially responsible.  It was to be done on the ‘honor system’ and I was to do the right thing by using them as a teaching tool and not try to sell them (in which case, the FBI would get involved and I would end up in Leavenworth or some such place (perhaps Inmate #1 at Guantanamo).

I signed the paper, mailed it and waited.

In about a month, a thick, black, heavy-duty case arrived at my school with my name on the label.  I duly informed the Principal and the local police.

I was allowed about two weeks to do whatever I was to do with them.  So, I borrowed a binocular microscope from the chemistry department and showed my students the crystals and soil particles of the moon.  It was all very cool to say the least.  I think I even got a small write-up in the local paper.

Then came Friday afternoon.  I stayed late in my classroom (with the samples in the case on the floor beside my desk).  My red pen ran out of ink while grading a test so I decided to check the case in the school office and begin the 25 miles trip to the farmhouse where I was living.

I got to the main school office of the school and found the lights out and the desks empty.  Everyone had gone home.  I wandered around looking for the custodian for help.  When I found him and asked about the combination to the safe, he looked at me like I was a convicted felon or someone bent on finding and changing vital records for my favorite students.

He backed away and returned to his cleaning.

I was left in the school lobby with my own briefcase and a heavy plastic case that contained pieces of the lunar surface!  Oh, and they were ‘priceless’.  I almost forget.  I worked through my options.  I couldn’t leave them in my room, I couldn’t lock my own file cabinet (the case wouldn’t fit anyway), I couldn’t hide them in the office (they were ultimately my responsibility).

That left me with only one option: take them home.  If I happened to get pulled over for speeding, something that was not out of the question since I was driving an orange MG Midget at the time, the cop would probably sooner or later discover I was carrying around a box with moon samples in my trunk.

That would take some explaining. Even considering my bizarre imagination, and ability to come up with a story.

“I was on my way to a Star Trek convention.”

“I was on my way to Roswell, New Mexico.”

“I was going to sell a few lunar samples I found beside the highway to a guy named Salvatore in New Jersey.”

“I just bought my wife some interesting rock samples at a Gem shop in Altona.  She’s a collector.”

“I was going to Cincinnati to get these autographed by Neil Armstrong.”

“I found them in a room at the Hi-Ho Motel in Hackensack and I was driving to Cape Kennedy to return them.”

“They’re for my kid’s science fair project.”

“I won them playing poker in the back room of the Kit-Kat Lounge in Biloxi.”

~~~

I drove home, carefully.  I put the case on the dining room table and showed the samples to my wife and daughter.  I called my brother and told him what I had on the dining room table.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “but I’ll come over if you have any more Rice-a-Roni leftovers.”

I didn’t want to go into the whole story with him, so I said there was plenty of Rice-a-Roni left.

“So, what do you want for desert?” I asked.

“Just a little green cheese and a Moon Pie,” he said.

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