Finding Peter

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[Lenny is on the left. Peter is happy to be in Pennsylvania]

It was here in the Adirondack Mountains that I walked up to the wall of a ranger cabin.  It was a far off December night, when my heart and body were young.  I had a flashlight in my shaking hand, and read by the dim light that the air temperature was -28 F.  I didn’t go back to the car.  I didn’t go back to a cabin.  I went back to the lean-to where my brother, Chris and a few friends were camping.  None of us had any down clothing or down sleeping bags.  We simply put the two bags we each carried together and pulled in the extra dry clothes for additional insulation.  Chris tied a tarp over the opening.  At least ten candles were lit.  You’d be surprised how those candles added warmth.  In our shelter, it was a comfortable -15 F. We were in our early teenage years.  I wouldn’t dream about camping in such temperatures now, not at my age.  Not when I know what cold can do.  What did I know in 1960?

One of my friends who slept near me in two sleeping bags that night was Peter.

A year earlier, in the summer of 1959, several boys, somehow got permission from their parents and set out from Owego, NY to visit one of the boy’s grandparents seventy-three miles away in Lake Winola, Pennsylvania.  I was the leader of the trip since it was to my grandparents house we were heading.  I remember spending one night in a pasture next to a small pond and amid cow pies scattered all over the field.  It was my duty to ask permission to camp there, so I knocked on the farmhouse and the old guy looked at me, my friends standing along the road with overloaded bikes and then looked out at the field.  He thought about it for about thirty seconds and then said: “Hell, I don’t care.  Just don’t burn the field down.”

One of those boys who rode his heavy one-speed Schwinn along the empty road was Peter.

In the high school library, if you knew the room well enough, you could squeeze between a gap in the stacks and discover a small space where there a few chairs.  All hidden behind the shelves…out of sight of those pouring over their homework or the latest copy of Hot Rod Magazine.  A few of the boys knew of this spot.  During the times when we would sign out of our study hall and go to the library, we would, one by one, push through the small opening and sit in the chairs.  Did we talk about what girl we thought was “easy”?  No.  Did we smoke? No.  Did we cause any trouble, fight or destroy books?  Again, no.  We would sit and discuss philosophical things like truth and beauty and life.  And, we would talk about the far off war in Viet Nam.  The librarian, Miss Grimes knew we were there and she left us alone.

The guy who led the discussions about such topics was my friend, Peter.

A few years later, this small group of boys had grown up a little.  There was Lenny, Greg, myself and Peter.  We were sitting in a house one evening telling stories and planning on something big.  I fell asleep on the sofa.  When I awoke, it was morning.  I realized my father would have checked my bed as he did for all of us over the years.  I would have been found missing!  I panicked and ran down Front Street, snuck in the front door and smelled coffee.  My father was up.  I could also hear the water running in the bathroom where he shaved.  Did he not check my bed yet?  I tore off my jeans and shirt and got into bed.  Less than a minute later, my father opened the door and saw that I was “fast asleep”.

The sofa I leapt from that morning was Peter’s.

One night, in Barry’s Restaurant in Owego, I was sitting with my childhood girlfriend trying to keep her from breaking up with me.  Peter came in and we sat and talked for a few hours.  He said good-night and then he left.

That was the last time I saw him.  We, who had such adventures that youth is meant to have, fell out of touch save for a brief telephone conversation a few years later when Greg, Roger Watkins and I discovered his phone number.  He was living in Batavia.  In Owego, we decided to drive up to see him.  We ran out of gas on the bridge just beyond the Treadway.  We walked home, never making it to Batavia.

Pater stayed away.  He “went under the radar” as they say.   It was like he rose like the mists of the Susquehanna on an autumn morning, rising and then dissipating into the humid air.

We all moved on with our lives.  I remained close to Greg and we would often discuss the fate of our “hero”, Peter.  He had become such stuff of legends that it was hard to distinguish the real from the dream.

Decades went by like some insane video player was stuck on Fast Forward.  But something loomed in the future for us all, all of those who walked the halls of OFA and watched the bonfires and went to sock hops (and got a hand autographed by Dion), saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and watched JFK’s funeral and went to our classmates funerals when they came home from Viet Nam…to their home in Evergreen Cemetery or St. Patrick’s or Tioga Cemetery.

Yes, there was something that many of us never gave much thought to, until we began to reach our early 60’s.

We were making plans to celebrate our 50th high school reunion!  Half a century separating us today from the pink cheeks and taffeta gowns of our prom, the Cookie Jar, the roller skating in Tioga Center and the Dick Clark Show which came to Johnson City more than once.  Many of my classmates and teachers are passed on now…but a great many of us remain…looking at our 70th birthdays coming in a few years like a spider walking on our arm.

Some of my classmates were absent from our growing data-base of email and physical addresses.

One of those whose job it was to seek out those who had not responded to the mailings or were simply “unknown”, came to me and asked if I would be willing to check out some leads on Peter.  I agreed.

I made the phone call, punching the keypad of what I hoped was the correct number.

A woman answered.  She asked who was calling.  I told her who I was.  She called to a man who took the phone.  It was the voice of a teenage boy with forty-nine years of life layered on.  I was speaking to Peter for the first time since 1966.

Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, he will not be able to attend the reunion.

But that’s okay.  I found my long-lost companion.

It was my friend, Peter.

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[In a pasture among the cow pies. 1959]

 

Unexpected Memories

DennyinOwego with Camera

Seventeen years ago today, my older brother Denny, passed away.  It was not a sudden unexpected death but a slow decline with cancer.  His family misses him terribly.  My brother, Dan and I miss him.  I think about him a great deal.

We were a family of four boys.  Denny was the second oldest, born in 1942, he was a five-year-old when my mother brought me home, wrapped in blankets…a few days old.  The 1990’s were a bad year for our family.  I lost Chris, the eldest in ’95 and then Denny in ’98.  Now, only Dan, the third born and I are all that remains of that interesting family that lived on the corner in Owego.

Everyone who has siblings is aware that each child has a distinct personality of his or her own.  That was certainly true of the Egans.  Chris was always the science guy.  Too many pens in his pocket.  Too many rocks or fossils filling his pockets.  He went on into academia.  Dan, as a teenager, was into cars and model rockets.  I spent most of my energy in a world of dreams and fantasies of writing while struggling to keep up with being like Chris.

Denny was different.  He was the quiet one.  He didn’t like to be the center of attention, but when you spoke with him, he had a sharp wit and sensitivity that most people lacked.  To my knowledge, he never got into a fight or did anything destructive.  As an older teenager, he befriended a guy named Bob.  We all knew that Bob was gay (or queer as we would have put it then).  Denny knew it.  But my brother was probably the only friend Bob ever had.

There was an introspective nature about Denny that set him apart from the rest of us.  He loved baseball and he followed the Mets from New York to Houston when he was transferred by his company, Shell Oil.  He named his son after Tom Seaver.  He would spend hours in his room playing a board game that involved shaking dice in a can to determine the way a play would go.  I recall the game was called APBA baseball.  There’s probably a video version of it around now.  But I can still hear the rattle of those dice in the can to this day.  In fact, every time dice are thrown, I think of Denny.

It’s an unexpected memory.

He kept meticulous records of players and teams in a smart neat notebook.  He wrote the stats in a perfect format.

It’s no wonder he went on to become an accountant.

Denny never made a big deal of being a Catholic as I recall.  He was an altar boy, as we all were.  But he kept his God to himself.  He was like me in one way, however.  He seemed always conscious of death; it held a morbid and fearful power over him.  There was a story that one of his childhood friends died as a young teen.  The funeral was held at the family’s house.  I think I remember Denny telling me that the boy’s mother pushed him forward to the casket and made him kiss the boy’s forehead.

Maybe this event didn’t really happen.  In later years, my mother always denied such a thing happened, but I still wonder…

Maybe it was an unexpected memory.

Denny was also the only one of our family who saw two ghosts in our house.  The details aren’t important here.  But, over the years, I asked him about those sightings and he never wavered in his description of what he saw.  He believed it.

When Denny got sick, he was fully aware of what his situation was.  On the phone, a few months after his diagnosis, I asked him how he felt about things.  He answered:

“I know things don’t look good for me.”

I was amazed at his calm attitude.  Me, I was in tears nearly every day until I got the dreaded phone call on that dreaded day in June of 1998.

Just yesterday I picked up a sachet of balsam that is a common tourist item in the Adirondacks.  I put it to my nose and the balsam scent filled my mind of memories of camping as a family here in the Park…in the long ago days of the 1950’s.  I never think of Denny as a camper, but as a child, he loved the sand and the swimming and that balsam odor that permeated the summer forest of Golden Beach and Eighth Lake Campgrounds.

I have that sack of balsam beside me now.  I can smell the 1950’s, my cot, our tent, Chris’ canoe, and the sand on my feet.

Oddly enough, I smell a memory of Denny…the demons he carried around inside himself for decades…and I think he would love to sit with me on a beach once again.  We would tell ghost stories and roast marshmallows.

Strange how powerful an unexpected memory can be.

Rest in Peace, Denny, God knows you deserve it.

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A Most Pecular Tree

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I stood just outside the mossy rock wall of the churchyard.  We were in a tiny English village with a name I would have to look up in my notebook.  I was making it a point to stop and look inside these old Saxon and Norman churches whenever we passed one (and where there was room to pull the rent car safely off the narrow road).

I stood and looked at the strange tree that grew many feet above my head.  I inched closer, careful to not brush against the nettles that, with a touch that lasted a nano-second, would punish your hand for the rest of the day.  It looked like a conifer with its oddly shaped needles.  Yet, there was something…

After snapping a picture, I continued to move around in the churchyard in search of unusual tombstones, interesting names, the best angle for a photo and heartfelt epitaphs that could barely be read under ages of lichen and moss.  I kept looking back at the tree.

Then I remembered.

I was shown this strange plant in 1975, on my first trip to England.  I was with a friend and he pointed out this awesome tree.

“Wager you don’t have many of these in the States,” he said.

“You win, Malcolm.  I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I replied.

“It’s a Monkey Puzzle tree,” he said.  “You don’t see many of them around.”

A Monkey Puzzle tree.  What an interesting name, I thought.

Over the years, I forgot about this strange tree that is native to Chile (it’s the National Tree of Chile).  Just a few weeks ago, I saw another one.  And now, I’m seeing my third.  I googled the tree and found that its population is declining.  It’s on the Endangered Species List of the IUCN (whatever that is).

Then little bits of my memory fed me snippets of the tree being mentioned in popular culture.  One of my favorite movies is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  Mrs. Muir had a Monkey Puzzle tree cut down and replaced by roses.  This made the spirit of the sea-captain quite angry…he had planted the tree years earlier (when he was alive) by his own hands.

Wikipedia mentions a novel Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer.  The female character, Emily, manages to climb the tree.  This is no small feat, since the tree is called “Monkey’s Despair” in France.  It’s not easy to climb.  Emily learns that a young boy who once lived in her house had climbed the tree…but was too afraid to climb down.  He later died in WWI.

I get a certain odd and creepy feeling when I stand and gaze at this tree.  Strangely, I often find them near graveyards.

They’ve been called “Living Fossils” because of the age of the species.

I found one an hour ago on eBay.  Perhaps I will buy one and have the only Monkey Puzzle in the Adirondacks (most likely).

But, then again, I don’t think I will.  I might be tempted to climb it.  I might be afraid to climb back down.  I might discover what it was that drove the monkeys to despair while they pawed their way through the odd and spooky branches.

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Reflections in a Sad Eye

patrickjegan

NightPub

The last bus stopped running an hour ago.  The publican has rung the bell in the nearby pub, calling out “Time gentlemen, please.” The night‘s action is most definitely over out here in the ‘burbs of London. The streets may be quiet and the locals are at home…but it’s still light out!

It’s only a bit after 10:00 pm.  In truth, the nearest pub will be remain open until midnight so it’s not entirely an empty neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the late flights from Capetown, Rio, New York and Paris are approaching touchdown…their wheels are lowered and they are slowly approaching the runway about 255 feet above my head.

Yes, my head that has been hit with a massive case of hay fever or some sort of allergy since I walked through customs a few hours.  I can’t use my handkerchief any more; it needs to hang out to dry.  I’m down…

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Reflections in a Sad Eye

NightPub

The last bus stopped running an hour ago.  The publican has rung the bell in the nearby pub, calling out “Time gentlemen, please.” The night‘s action is most definitely over out here in the ‘burbs of London. The streets may be quiet and the locals are at home…but it’s still light out!

It’s only a bit after 10:00 pm.  In truth, the nearest pub will be remain open until midnight so it’s not entirely an empty neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the late flights from Capetown, Rio, New York and Paris are approaching touchdown…their wheels are lowered and they are slowly approaching the runway about 255 feet above my head.

Yes, my head that has been hit with a massive case of hay fever or some sort of allergy since I walked through customs a few hours.  I can’t use my handkerchief any more; it needs to hang out to dry.  I’m down to using a roll of toilet paper to stifle my sneezes.  Even the woman tending bar at the pub noticed my agony and offered her own personal pills she claimed worked for her hay fever.

I tend not to take pills from people I never me before.

The flight from Shannon was only about an hour.  The “food” was a box of crackers, some cheese, a small chocolate bar, some vegetable pate, small can of tonic, and a glass of water.  All for €7.50.  Aer Lingus must be in financial trouble.

We’re in the very B&B we used in 2012. It was cheap, near the airport and provided a free shuttle to the terminals.

I doubt we’ll travel this cheap again.

The room’s light was dingy, quite brothel-like.  There was no shower curtain and only one towel each.

I’m writing this with my iMac Air and using it like it’s supposed to be used…on my lap.  But I have a bad back and I’m leaning against a pillow that is, if I’m lucky, two inches thick.

I’m a hugger.  I don’t know, maybe my mother took my teddy away too soon, but I need something to wrap my arms around.  I’m going to be forced to use my neck cushion.  The kind of thing that looks good in the W.H. Smith store but is difficult to pack…like a football.  People  sleep with them on planes and trains.  Mine’s blue in case you’re interested.

I’m not very happy right now.

This was meant to be a reflection of a wonderful trip.  But, as usual with me, it’s bittersweet.

We said good-bye to Brian on Sunday.  Ireland seemed to be a little emptier without his companionship, wit, charm and sense of amazement at what he saw and what we shared.  I’m quite proud of myself for planning a trip that included a medieval banquet, being on his own in a few pubs in Cashel, and climbing to the battlements of our ancestral castle in County Tipperary.

Thinking back on the entire trip, I can recall some awesome sights and some frustrating moments.  I’ve looked down haunted wells where a violated youth was thrown.  I’ve seen the withered hand of a saint who founded the Abbey that later became Ely Cathedral.  We’ve rubbed fingers with mummies in a crypt in Dublin, threw a pence into the Liffey from Ha’Penny Bridge.

Up in County Sligo, at a cemetery in Enniscrone, I stood at the grave of Tom and Kate Egan who once served me tea from water that had been boiling all day over a peat fire.

That was over thirty years ago.

I’ve looked out over the fields my people plowed and had their cattle graze for decades.

Stone walls don’t change much in human life times. The hedges grow for centuries. The rains fall and the people keep smiling.

In England, our friends edge toward retirement and think thoughts about where it would be a nice place to live.

To me, I couldn’t think of any place more in tune with the beats of my heart and yearnings of my soul than England or the west of Ireland.

Being of Irish background, I thought of what it would be like to live there.  My body is pulled two ways.  My blood says to go back to the soil that first made you who you are…melancholy and love of the written word are my genetic markers.

But, I’m happiest when I’m walking.  And, there is no place with footpaths that lead to all my dreamscapes than England.

If you drive six miles through Wiltshire, Somerset or Dorset and not pass a dozen “public footpath” signs, then you have a bad case of tunnel vision.

My adventure is over and I’m a sadder man because of it.  In the coming weeks, I will sit and tell funny stories of our trip, but deep within me, I’ll long for the footpath.  I’ll long for the place when the biggest decision I need to make is which direction to walk.

Yes, the Adirondacks have hundreds of miles of trails and I live in the center of it all, but somehow it lacks the ancient history and mythic lore that stirs my soul as I stand inside a stone circle that was constructed before the Great Pyramids.

I am cursed with restlessness.

But the posts will go on. I’ve not shown you things or told you stories of many things.  Some will keep you awake at night. Some will make you smile and some will make you cry.

If I can do all these things…I’ve succeeded in what a writer most wants.  Getting people to read.

Right now? I’m going to shut the dingy overhead light off and switch on my Barnes & Nobel reading lamp.  I’m working my way through Dickens at the moment.

Its title is very appropriate:

“Great Expectations”.

GardenHeathrow

 

[This post is written in England but it will be posted from Penn Station when we get back. This hotel wants £4.00 for Wi-Fi. I have never paid for that service before and I’m not going to start now.]

 

Slán

THE CLIFFS OF DOONEEN

You may travel far far from your own native home

Far away oer the mountains far away oer the foam

But of all the fine places that I’ve ever seen,

There’s none to compare with The Cliffs of Dooneen

Take a view oer the water fine sights you’ll see there

You’ll see the high rocky slopes on the West coast of Clare

The towns of Kilrush and Kilkee can be seen

From the high rocky slopes at The Cliffs of Dooneen

Its a nice place to be on a fine Summer’s day

Watching all the wild flowers that ne’er do decay

The hare and lofty pheasant are plain to be seen

Making homes for their young round The Cliffs of Dooneen

Fare thee well to Dooneen fare thee well for a while

And to all the fine people I’m leaving behind

To the streams and the meadows where late I have been

And the high rocky slopes of The Cliffs of Dooneen

—Christy Moore

 

[This is my final post from Ireland.  I saw and experienced far more that I had put into words.  At the end of the day, I often had no plan for a theme or a topic to write about.  On many nights, my energy to sit and think was not there.  I won’t go into details about the rather dicey WiFi connections at our B&B’s.  I will be catching up at some point…so you’ve not read the last of the tales I can tell about this island of mist, magic and myth.  They say there are twenty-eight shades of green in the hills and glens.  I never counted.  One shade of true Irish green is enough to satisfy my soul.]

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The Silent Songs of the Burrens and the Rebel Songs of Galway

Moher1I stood at the edge of the famous Cliffs of Moher.  Just a short drive from Shannon Airport, this site is one of the first stops for tourists.  The last time I stood at this edge of Ireland where the Atlantic Ocean pounds silently far below us, at the base of rock faces that can cause you to miss a breath, I couldn’t see anything.  It was misty  and a wet wind nearly blew me over.

Not today.  We had just picked up my son, Brian, and the weather was clear enough so when you looked out to the ocean, you could see the curvature of the earth.  A harpist played New Age Celtic melodies for the crowds that were trudging up the steps for the best view.  A fiddler played.  A man on a penny whistle played.  The music blended nicely with the quiet view.  We were too far above the waves to hear any crashing surf.  The music was the soft lilts and airs of this land of music and dance.

I watched my son.  He leaned against the great stone slabs that protected oblivious tourists from getting too close to the edge.  I saw him close his eyes briefly.  He heard the music of the sea without hearing the sound of the water, so far below.

Our destination for the night was Galway.  Another few hours of driving would put us at a B & B in Salthill, just a short walk to the famous Latin Quarter.  We were going in search of pubs that played traditional Irish music.

But first, we had to drive through the Burren.  This is a strange place indeed.  Lunar-like in its landscape, it is where many people get their first real look at the wild and isolated regions of Ireland.  Unless you’re mentally prepared, there came be something unsettling and odd in this land of flat limestone.  In the full sunlight, the stone can be nearly blinding with its white-gray surface…a surface that give you the sense that you can just turn your car to one side and just drive over the pavement.

But that would be a bad idea.  It was rolling and full of boulders and fissures in the rock that are a foot wide.  I parked the car to stretch and I walked away from the road.  It was silent, save for the wind in my hair and blowing through the heather patches and wildflowers that found a home in the cracks.

I heard something.  I heard music.  I looked around and I was too far from any car for a radio to be heard.  My wife and son had found a nice place to sit and wait for me.

There it was again.  I heard music…it was an ancient air…a mournful tune…a lament that came from the very rocks I was standing on.  I heard familiar melodies like Molly Malone and .  I heard the music of an older time when life was simpler and more gentle.  A time when God may have been present among the lives of men.  A time when nature herself ruled the earth as the Mother Goddess in the times of the Mist. I heard the songs of the fossils that were older than time itself.  The shells and the oolites of the limestone was alive with something I couldn’t understand or touch.

Just listen.

I walked slowly back to the car, afraid to confront reality.  That’s when I saw my son standing and looking out over Galway Bay.  I wondered if he heard the music as I did.  I walked up and stood beside him.

“This is insane,” he said.

I knew what he meant.  I think it was his Gen X way of saying: “I get this place right now.  I really do.”

We drove on.  Cottages, bonded to the solitary sheep, began to appear as if to announce that humans still used this land.

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Then, the flatness returned.  The rocks stretched toward the Bay and then, with a ninety degree drop, met the water.

BurrensSlabs1

We stopped a few more times before we left the Burren.  Brian got out of the car once more and walked to the edge once again.  He looked out at the water.

I tried to read his mind, but couldn’t.  And, that’s the way it should be.

BrainAtGalwayBay

That night we went to the Latin Quarter in Galway, not very far from the Spanish Arch.  We heard music again.  Finnegan’s Wake, Raglan Road, The Wild Rover.  Songs of the people.  Songs of the struggles.  Songs of unrequited love.  Songs exile and songs of executions.

Songs that define this ancient and complex island.

Songs that were sung for a hundred years…perhaps by people who had my blood in their veins.

GalwayAtNight