My 600th Blog: Lat. 24 N./Long. 81 W.

[Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter. Located at the Hemingway House Museum, Key West, Florida. Photo is mine.]

Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be.

~~Ernest Hemingway

I am sitting in the air-conditioned Monroe Country Public Library (Key West Branch). It’s quiet, cool and has a WiFi that takes no prisoners. I chose this place to celebrate the posting of my 600th blog. (Confused? See Title.)

So I posted my first real blog on July 18, 2012. It was an excerpt from my first published novel Standing Stone (2012). I was totally unsure as to whether I had the energy and ability to write real content. In truth, only a year before I had very little idea what a “blog” was. I’m still learning. If my math is correct, that’s close to eleven years ago. I was sixty-four years old. When I’m sixty-four, I probably thought at the time, where will I be in eleven years from now? It wouldn’t be telling lies if I said that in my most dazzling dreams, I’d still be pounding on the keys of my laptop (actually, today I’m using my iPad) and trying hard to amuse and inform and entertain. Time will tell if I’ve succeeded.

What follows is a short list of the various places and topics I’ve written about in the years after 2012. They are scatter-shot…in no particular order. Just a quick look back:

I’ve told you stories of Adirondack Trolls, my frustration with snow, ice and sub-zero weather, thermometers that never run a battery down. You’ve heard of the joys and hardships of living in Big Bad New York City. I’ve reposted a true story of my father’s youth, “Coal for Christmas” every December (does that throw my count of posts off??).

I shared my joys of visiting my daughter, Erin and her husband and my only grandchild, Elias from Orting, WA. You’ve read numerous complaints about my bad back and the health issues I’ve had (including my diagnosis of leukemia).

I wrote of my love for the desert and our wandering in Death Valley and the Mojave. Numerous tales were written from England, Ireland, Portugal and Paris. I told you how I celebrated several birthdays in recent year (i.e., when I turned sixty-eight, Mariam and I walked sixty-eight steps along the nave of Wells Cathedral and paused to kiss).

Sadly, I wrote too many posts of sad farewells of my family…and my very best friend of over sixty years, Greg Stella who passed in July, 2022. Rereading those posts still make me cry.

I’ve concocted outrageously silly stories of the demise of or moral failure of our favorite cartoon characters like Popeye, Dennis the Menace and Mr. Peanut.

I’ve shared ghost stories and posted ghost photographs (leaving you to be the judge of the real and the fanciful).

I wrote numerous recollections of my childhood sweetheart, my family home in Owego and my time-warping walks down Front Street in my aforementioned home town.

I described how, on a beautiful autumn afternoon (or was it in the spring?) of helping a cemetery caretaker dig a grave for a woman I never met.

There are many posts that told you of my love of the poetry of Bob Dylan. I even wrote a pre-death eulogy for him.

I’ve tried to celebrate my love for my wife, my children and my grandson. I told you how sad I got in Bruges, Belgium, Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and along a footpath in England.

I have played with different writing styles like noir and meta fiction. I’ve written short short stories.

And I did it all for you, my readers. I never wrote anything cruel, hateful or boastful. I was honest with you. I respect those of you who took a few moments out of your busy lives to read my efforts. Scrolling this page, I see that there are too many “I’s” and not enough “you”. I apologize.

I will close this rambling post with a photo and a microscopic story:

[The famous Key West Kapok Tree. Photo is mine. Taken by Mariam Voutsis.]

Legends about about the Kapok (native to Indonesia) Tree. One belief: The Devil entrapped a unwary carpenter inside the tree because he had the temerity to carve out rooms in the ginormous trunk. Another: The Tree is said to grow into the heavens (it is known to grow up to ten feet a year).

The Tree has many uses. It is soft so artists use the wood for carvings. It is used for dugout canoes and…caskets.

Good-bye for now. The beach beckons.

Be kind and never let anyone to be lonely or forgotten or be invisible.

Don’t Be Fooled By Trompe-l’oeil

[Illustration source: Google search. Artist Erik Johansson.]

Why did Van Gogh become a painter?

–Because he didn’t have ear for music.

~~

Whenever my artistic girlfriend is sad, I let her draw on my body…

–I gave her a shoulder to crayon.

~~

I used to do fine arts, until I decided I didn’t like arts.

–Now I’m doing just fine.

~~

When you’re colorblind in an art gallery, every thing is a pigment of your imagination.

~~~

So, as I was saying, I came close to being arrested by the Art Police (Security) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) about two weeks ago. What, you may very well ask, were you doing? Trying to find a cavity in Mary Magdalene’s molar in the Medieval Hall? Did you haggle over the $17.00 glass of wine in the Balcony Lounge? Unwrapping a mummy? Or did you try to slip a halter top on Andromeda in the Sculpture Hall?

Actually it was none of the above.

I had spent more time admiring the newly restored and painted statuary in the Greek and Roman Art Gallery. It was awesome to see the statues in living color. I felt like Marcus Aurelius in flannel-lined jeans. We lingered until Mariam pointed out that she thought there was another exhibition I had mentioned. Yes, I said. There is something about Cubism and something or other on the second floor. I checked my Apple Watch. We had forty-five minutes before we were due at the Balcony Lounge for S. Pellegrino, Chardonnay and Hummus with Pita. We had time. The walk would be good for me. I needed the exercise. We headed for the escalator.

On the way, Mariam pulled out the exhibition folder and said: Here, is this it? It’s called Cubism and the Tromp…I stopped on a dime. Wait, I said. Trump? I’m done here. Let’s go home…No, wait, she said. It’s called Cubism and the Trompe-l’oeil Tradition.

I told her the only French I knew was to say “Zwei bier, bitte”. I had so find a bench to sit. I was shaking. I thought it you said…C’mon, she said. It’s not anything political. I felt relieved. A few minutes later we entered Gallery 199. We walked slowly through the rooms, absorbing the ambience of artistic…art when I spotted something on the wall. I walked over. It was framed (!). But something wasn’t right. There was a nail sticking out. I stared. No, there are several nails sticking out. I glanced around for the Security to alert them to the danger of someone snagging a sweater or a Polo Golf Shirt on those dangerous nails.

[Notice the nails. Photo is mine.]

Upon closer inspection I was astonished to see that it was only a painting of a nail. My tension eased. Besides, the Security Guard, whose name tag read: Richard, was chatting up the red-head Security Guard from Gallery 201, (name tag read: Amber. He was making headway.) I stood back. This was something else indeed. I walked back the first room and read the writing on the wall. Whoa. This was Trompe l’Oeil. I scratched through my fanny pack for my French Phrase Book. It meant the eye deceives. Suddenly, a memory flashed before me. I remember a poster I had back in the early ’70’s. It was M. C. Escher, perhaps one of the most famous graphic artists in a long time. It was all coming back to me…

I returned to Gallery 199 and looked for more. I saw a painting from half-way across the room. I swear it looked like something was painted on wood. Wait, I thought. I assumed that artists used stretched canvas to paint on. Moving closer I was amazed to see that it was a painting of wood on canvas. I was feeling dizzy. This was awesome. This was really fun to look at.

[Indeed. Wood painted on canvas. Photo is mine.]

This was heady stuff. And there was more:

[I wanted to open the curtain a little more. Boy, was I fooled. Photo is mine.]

I felt Mariam pull on my sleeve. Look at that one, she said. I looked. Whoa. I’d better get over there and keep all that stuff from falling on the nicely polished hard-wood floor.

[Fooled again…Photo is mine.]

The painting above impressed me the most. Notice the comb interacting with the leather strap. This was not an exhibit I will easily forget. We walked through a few more rooms. I checked my Apple Watch. Time for hummus at the Balcony Lounge. After paying the bill (large enough to choke a horse) we made for the main exit doors and. There’s a yellow, Mariam said, let’s hurry and get it. I slowly descended the grey granite steps and walked to the cab, passing a saxophone playing the blues…in the rain…on glorious 5th Avenue…under a leaden sky…in the Greatest City in the World.

I was secretly hoping that cab was really there…and not just painted on the pavement.

~ ~ ~

I am sad to say that I lost my M. C. Escher book sometime in the last forty years. (I think it was a Tuesday). In the meantime, I’ve been busy trolling the Internet. Talented street artists have done some mind-blowing work with 3-D visual arts. Here are just a few examples: Enjoy…

[Park Bench. Artist: Julian Beever. Bored Panda.com]

[A common theme in this genre, fear of heights. Source: Google search. Bored Panda.com]

[Source: Google search.]

[Source: Google search. Artist: Erik Johansson]

[Source: Google search. Paste magazine]

[A living room rug to die from for. An advertisment from Tempu.]

[The shower is especially dangerous. Tempu]

A final word to my friends and readers: I apologize for not providing a full description of the artists at the MET. I don’t think I ever forgot my Moleskin notebook before that day in the Museum. The two ads were photos of iPad images. Tough to do. If you’ve enjoyed this post, ‘like’ it and move on with your life…which is, I’m sure, far more interesting than the musing of someone who can barely paint a brick with a brush from Ace Hardware. I never had an art class until I moved to NYC in the early ’90’s. Well, actually I took a six-week Screenprint and Etching course in Poole, England during my year in the UK. Full disclosure: My etching of Durdle Door in Dorset…I did it the way I saw it. But, it will print in the reverse.

Oops, I’ve done it again.

I will leave you with Escher’s most famous pieces. I believe it’s called Waterfall. Find a book about all this. You’ll love it.

[Artist: M. C. Escher. Source: Google search.]

A Song. An Image. A Tear

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

~~ Winnie the Pooh

I am a fan of talent shows. I don’t mean the kind we used to see on the Miss America Contest from Atlantic City. Bert Parks standing off to the side and singing “There She Is, Miss America” would make the whole event worthwhile to me. No, I’m talking about the County Fairs, School Events…perhaps even an open-mike night at a small Irish Pub. The talent is usually young people…a new dance routine learned at Maggie’s Dancing Studio down on Main Street. I’m envious of those who can stand up before a bleacher full of strangers (and some family). The thirteen year old girl on the school stage singing “Am I Blue?” or a nine year old singing “Both Sides Now“. Whatever is lacking in true talent is made up for in pure guts. I could never do it.

But I digress.

Every so often I spend a few minutes surfing Facebook for clips of Steve Martin’s first time on The Tonight Show, or an ‘official’ music video of Bob Dylan’s latest release. This is my time to catch up and upgrade my cultural literacy.

Several weeks ago I happened upon a collection of postings from America’s Got Talent. It was here that I first heard a pre-pubescent yodeler from Iowa or a darkly frightful young woman illusionist from Indonesia. But I paused on a segment featuring a ten year old autistic boy (who is also blind!). His foster father held his hand and did the introduction while the boy rocked back and forth, holding his cane. His name is Christopher Duffley. The clip is eight years old but I had never seen it before. The dad said the boy would be singing “I Want To See You“. I googled the song and found a tune by that name written and preformed by Boz Scaggs. I’m not totally certain it’s the same song…but it’s a moot point. The point is that I was very moved by what I was watching. The boy’s first faltering notes. His unease apparent.

(I have a vested interested in this topic. My daughter, Erin, teaches a couple of autistic boys in Orting, WA. And my grandson is approximately the same age as the boy on stage.)

But he gave up the cane, grabbed the mike and sang. The live music behind him on stage adjusted the pace and tempo to fit the child’s tiny voice.

But such bravery.

I felt a warm tear rolling down my cheek.

And, as fathers sometimes do, I saw my own son (now thirty-five years old) as that boy. I tried to climb into the father’s head. I couldn’t.

I could not do much of anything but watch, watch until the next tear fell.

[Note: For further information on autism, go to the link below:]

https://nationalautismassociation.org/

Farewell Marcel

[Volumn #1]

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

–Marcel Proust

As I strolled through the Parisian gardens of Luxembourg I paused and watched the people absorbing the sun’s warmth which was peeking, like a cat burglar, through the sweet gate in the sky made possible by the slowly drifting clouds that often looked dark and menacing at times and light, dazzling and adamantine at others. I opened a package of Madelines I was never without and dipped one in a small cup of tea I had purchased from a portly gentleman with a bushy mustache and a pocket that sagged with the spare francs he had earned that day. The scent of the tea on the little cookie entered into my every senses. I began to think of my youth, the girls I loved who had by now become stately women. I touched my beard, newly trimmed, and could feel the grayness of my hair. I was old. What happened to all those Lost Years, the years of my older youth, my early middle age and now my late middle age? I had yet to taste of the fruits of old age with its wrinkles, gray hair and painful legs. I had yet failed in my attempts to rediscover the Lost Time of my life. My memories were fading and I must learn ways to regain the imagery and sensations of the questionable choices I had made in the heat of my youth when my blood ran hot in my veins and laughter came easy. But along with the cheers and smiles I am beginning to recall how hard and fast my heart breaks. I have loved but my love was too dear for the women I most desired.

I brought the Madeline to my nose again. I drew in an olfactory sensation that brought back my most elusive memories. I closed my eyes and somewhere, behind my eyes and between my ears were the smells of burning leaves along Front Street of Owego in the state of New York, the town where my childhood was played out like a Shakespearian play, sometimes a tragedy sometimes a comedy. The leaves gave way to the sweet fragrance of a newly mown lawn along Main Street. The old river town has changed over the years, I am told, into a boutique village of cafes and antique shops selling the latest of the old town’s ephemera. One can sit in the sun and watch the slowly drifting Susquehanna River as it winds its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Up on Cemetery Hill, the moss grows over the lettering of the graves of young men and women I played with in sandy baseball fields and snowy hills that seem to exist only to provide gravity to an eight-year-old boy on a sled. How many languid afternoons has seen me at The Fair Grounds, eating sloppy cheesesteak sandwiches and watching the horses race the oval track. On the back row of seats in the grandstand is where I may have tasted my first Madeline.

I shall set a goal for myself. Some people are driven by their need for achieving certain goals. Driven to do such picaresque actions these goals are sometimes achievable and sometimes not. Some people have the ability to set recording devices in order to never miss an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians or the Hoarders. Some set themselves on arduous journeys to summit Everest or Denali or the Matterhorn. Others will bike their way across Iowa. Many jump out of airplanes (on purpose) to feel the rush of the wind as they free fall a thousand feet. I set my goal several years ago (I’m not saying when) to read what is arguably the longest novel ever written (not counting the Game of Thrones books). I was going to read Proust’s magnum opus: A La Recherche du Temps Perdu or otherwise referred to in English as In Search of Lost Time. It will be a daunting task. The book (depending on the edition) runs from 3,000 to 4,000 pages. My eyes must look at and understand 1,267,069 words. The books are six in number. I must search for and find the longest sentence ever written. That sentence clocks in at 847 words.

I am proud and somewhat amazed that I have only fifty pages left to complete this gargantuan task. At times the book can be like sucking fudge through a straw. The exquisite power of the language, the depth of the writing, the scope of the descriptions, the insights into love, death, grief, loneliness, lust, desire and dreams of men and women. I truly believe that if one calls him or herself a lover of books, then reading Proust is a must do action.

I have read many books in my life (so far) but none of them can stand up under the blazing light of Proust. If you like challenges…read these books. You’ll never see another book, your life and your dreams and memories the same way again…ever.

[Proust had little need for paragraph breaks, commas and pictures.]

[All photos are mine.]

A Spadeful of Earth

Grief is the price we pay for love.

–Queen Elizabeth II

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

–Abraham Lincoln

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’

–Erma Bombeck

[The High Peaks of the Adirondacks]

The photo above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. My friend, Greg Stella and I used this beautiful region as our playground. Every peak, every valley had our boot prints in the mud and the rocky summits felt the back of our heads as we daydreamed away the hours after an ascent. After the ascent. Such a misnomer. It implied a “last ascent.” There was never really a last ascent. There would be another, and then another…and another. In the area shown in the photo were the majority of the oft-mentioned ADK 46. Other peaks were found outside the frame. There were 46 peaks (according to the original survey) that were 4,000′ or higher. If one climbed all of them, he or she would be eligible to join the “46 er’s” and get a patch to proudly wear on your parka or rucksack. Greg and I climbed about twenty or twenty-five of these peaks. We decided, sometime in the 1980’s that ‘bagging’ the summits wasn’t what we were searching. It became less about the numbers and more about re-climbing our favorites…some many times over.

The room in the funeral home in Owego, NY, set aside for the service was filling up fast. I was going to give the eulogy, but I had to wait until a full military service was complete. Then the priest said the words that were so often spoken at funerals. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways and equally mysterious reasons to bring down upon us congregants the unspeakable grief of an unbearable loss. Then it was my turn. I positioned myself at the podium, away from the slide show of my friend’s life. If I looked at them, I knew in my heart I would not be able to string two sentences together without a box or two of Kleenex or even better, Angel Soft. I had to focus on my note cards and pretend my heart was still whole and not cracked open with grief.

We climbed in the rain, the snow and the sleet. We slept in lean-tos when it thundered like an angry Greek God over our heads. We curled up in our cheap sleeping bags when the ambient air temperature was -30° F. And, yes it’s true. If you left your hot chocolate out beyond the roaring fire, it would freeze over in about four minutes. We slept on bare rock summits on balmy summer nights. If it was during the New Moon, we would drift into sleep under unnumbered, uncountable myriads of stars and distant planets that made the midnight hour almost bright enough a time to read a book…or a poem. But hiking wasn’t our only shared experience. We rock climbed in the ‘gunks near New Paltz, NY, entered and competed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta. Cooperstown to Bainbridge on the lazy Susquehanna. For that we were given a small trophy and a patch for our anoraks. This was in 1976 and we came across the finish line 74th out of a field of over two hundred. Not bad for two canoeists with no training.

I completed the eulogy and held my composure better than I thought I was capable. I knew I had to be strong for his family and other relatives. I took several quick glances at Greg’s urn. It was beautiful. I wondered how they put his cremains and his spirit, talent and humor into such a small square container. If I sound like I’m bragging about all the amazing adventures Greg and I shared, nothing could be further from the truth. I felt humble and insignificant beside such a grand person, larger than life and now silent for a very long time.

We’re at the graveside. There are his parents. Over further are his neighbors. Further on are my parents. In between are our childhood friends who never walked off a plane after a tour of duty in Viet Nam. There were old girlfriends and so many others that we walked past on the streets of Owego in years gone by. Someday, I will mingle with the soil of this hallowed ground not too far from my friend. The priest said his final words. We all stood and began to slowly drift away to get on with our lives. Someone said my name. I was handed a shovel. The small hole was nearly half filled already. I scooped a spade full and let the earth fall on the top of the urn, covering two cloth patches. A green Adirondack Mountain Club patch and a red “FINISHER” patch that I had given to Patti before the service. Soon the grounds person laid the final sod clumps and tamped it down.

It was over, the ceremony that is. What was just beginning was the flood of memories so many of us spoke.

Good-bye my dear friend. I know we will meet again, on a new trail, in another place. This will happen sometime on a sunny day, when the clouds won’t be hanging so low and seem so impenetrably grey.

[Greg and I climbing a mountain in the High Peaks]
[Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

–Robert Service

[All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated]

Late Night Thoughts on Connie Francis

Spring and summer were still weeks away, although summer seems to permanently exist here in Florida. But still…

I was sitting in the lanai making notes on developing and writing and publishing a blog about music and the importance of Connie Francis. We had just been to the beach and my head was full of Beach Boy songs. I asked Alexa to play a few more when we returned home. But, I knew there was more to summer and sand music then Brian Wilson & Company. Out of the blue it came to me. I stopped making notes and picked up my iPhone and went straight to Spotify. There they were. I downloaded (or is it uploaded?) several songs by Connie Francis. I sat back and played Where The Boys Are. Her sweet alto voice rising and falling stopped me in my tracks. This was the music of my youth, those halcyon days of bikes, pools and buzzing cicadas.

Where the boys are, where the boys are, someone waits for me…

I look around me. I’m fourteen again. My towel is damp from three hours in the pool. I sit on the steps of my childhood home and talk to my neighbor Craig:

“What do you wanna do today?”

“I dunno, what do you want to do?”

“Beats me, what do you want to do?” Our days were carefree and full of Beach Boys, Tommy Sands, Neil Sedaka and Connie Francis.

In the crowd of a million people, I’ll find my valentine…

[Our helpmate Alexa]

Our thoughts turned to the movies: “Let’s go to the movie tonight,” Craig would suggest. “They’re showing “Beach Blanket Bingo”. This was just after “How To Stuff a Wild Bikini” ran for two weeks. Before that the marquee read: “Dr. Goldfoot” (I’m not making this up.). The next feature was slated to be “Muscle Beach Party”. One could get a shoe full of sand just watching these classics. Many starred Frankie Avalon or Tommy Kirk and, of course Annette Funicello. All the guys around our age, and I suspect a few fathers just adored Annette as a star of the Mickey Mouse Club. And its no wonder. Annette had the biggest…..head of black hair than any other Mousketeer.

And then I’ll climb to the highest steeple and tell the world he’s mine.

Later in life, sad things befell Connie and Annette. It saddens me.

Thank you two ladies for some of the best music of my teenage years.

Now, sitting in the Florida warmth, the ceiling fan whirring above my head, I can feel a bit of the exuberance of youth. Even though I’ve come to fully accept the limitations of age, the pains, the aches, the regrets and the triumphs, I can still appreciate the songs written for the Young At Heart.

But that’s another story for another time. And besides, perhaps inside my worn body beats the heart of a hopeful young boy.

Thank you, Lord, for Spotify.

Avocados And Men

There he is, leaning against his Electric Blue 2017 Honda Fit. He is confident and casual. This is a man of many talents. You should get to know him. Along with his many talents he is a 3-card Monte champion and well known in Monte Carlo, certified 747 pilot, world renown diesel mechanic, first human to descend to the bottom of Lake Okeechobee, presently of the Stephen Hawking Chair in Astrophysics at Cambridge, discoverer of the J/psi meson, Master Sommelier at Ricardos Restaurant in El Paso, TX., author of over 75 novels that follow Chief Inspector Olaf Gorhagan of Oslo, Head negotiator of all mid-East conflicts, Chief Resident at Mass General Hospital (headed up a landmark study of STD’s in former science teachers), All-star QB for the Seattle Seahawks leading them to twenty-five Super Bowls, Author of JAMA articles that are following the breast implant surgery on 429 starlets from Van Nuys, California. Please note that this only a partial listing.

But I digress.

Now I know what it’s like being a woman. It’s a well-known fact that women are more conscience of what they wear than men. Several evenings ago we went out to dinner. Earlier in the day I got one compliment about my shirt. It’s green and sports about fifty images of avocados. At our favorite restaurant a bunch of young women went crazy about my shirt.

Avocados. Who would have thought that a tiny fruit can be such a chick-magnet.

I know better now. It isn’t Corvettes or horses with manly cowboys. It isn’t likenesses of James Dean or Sean Connery. It isn’t stylized wrenches and hammers.

It’s a lonely little Avocado. Who needs a Track & Field Trophy when there’s a great produce section at Walmarts.

Coal For Christmas

[Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan. Date unknown.]

[Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t think you’re getting senile. It’s perhaps the fourth or fifth time I’ve posted it.  It’s my version of a pure Christmas Story. I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  As the years pass, I hope these newer memories are adding reality and not just wishes. This is not a made-up story by me.  It really happened].  

It’s another year and another chance for me to share this holiday memory. Happy Holidays to you all!

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache in my joints and every sadness of my seventy-third year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls deep and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer to brighten the dark and endless winter evenings. It is a time to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.  It’s time for a Christmas story.

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good, very good, or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped presents, red-ribboned and as big a box as a little boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, if we were bad little boys, as my parents often said, he would leave a lump of coal. You deserved nothing more.

My father, Paul Egan, grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out to find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. When we had a house in Owego, N.Y. and we had plenty of space for a large tree in the living room.  And we had plenty of fist-sized chunks of coal in the cellar.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow so much deeper.  And the coal so much more dear.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and family legend has it that he died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was cold. Frigid is more apt a term. The chill of the season found a way into a house using the smallest openings. There was never enough flannel.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after midnight, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet. It was too chilly.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night. The reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

In the corner of the small living room stood a stunted Christmas tree.  There were a few bulbs on the branches. My father never spoke about whether there was a string of bright lights, but my suspicions were that there were no bright red, green and white bulbs.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold, bare feet into an old pair of his father’s cold boots that were five sizes too large.  He then went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was now merely embers. Not enough for a house.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid air.  In the fresh snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was a common occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the ten or more feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the inside of the pit.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was nearly full with chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  The embarrassment was evident on their faces. They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  After glancing at each other once, they looked up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down the ladder and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the load between them. My grandmother carried the third pail.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house had warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep (he always would say) with a smile on his face.

The Christmas morning that followed a few hours later was in a warm living room.  My dad never spoke anything to his siblings about the previous night.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal-pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.  That dreaded lump of coal in the stocking that was tacked to the mantle over the little-used fireplace.  My fears left me.  Dad’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “if anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: “I hope so.”

“Then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

The Great Suet Cage Conflict of Rainbow Lake

[Source: Johns Hopkins.edu]

After an hour of lying on my sofa I felt it was time to get up and stretch my chronically sore back. I was lost in a copy of The Principles of Leadership and Management. It was a interesting and informative book. I’ll tell you how it ends when I finish it, sometime in the next few months.

As I was deciding which shoulder needed a rubbing of CBD lotion, I glanced out of the picture window to concentrate on our green suet cage. I noticed a small white object at the bottom the feeder. There were two explanations:

Either a small bit of suet remained or it was the body of a dead albino finch. Since the ‘door’ was latched from the outside, I decided it was the remains of some suet. A locked-in albino finch presented a whole new mystery and I failed to find the energy to play Agatha Christie at the moment.

Suet cages and I have a history. I put one up and it was gone the next day! Gone. I know that squirrels love suet, but to figure out how to open one and/or drag the entire object away made me angry. I decided to fight back.

Study the photo below:

Do you notice the small curvy latches that are supposed to ‘lock’ the cage door? A field mouse with a case of bad arthritis could open those latches. I came to the conclusion that some other, stronger and squirrel-proof device was called for.

My wife suggested using a twist-tie. A twist-tie, I thought, could easily be chewed by a large woodpecker. No, I thought, that won’t do.

So I went to the hardware store and bought several ‘S’ hooks. Now these are harder than they look, so I tried to alter the shape with my fingers. I immediately cut a bit of my forefinger and thumb off.

[Source: Google Search]

Mariam helped me with the Band-Aid. I needed something stronger so I used a pair of pliers (actually two). Things slipped and I cut myself again. After several attempts, I had the ‘S‘ holding the door secure.

Some lessons I learned: use a hand tool, use a twist tie if needed, keep your wife and first-aid kit nearby and never try this at home.

Now I have to change the suet again because the Downy Woodpeccker has a large appetite. He or she must have finished off the last bit of suet and let it drop through the cage holds to the pile of rotting leaves below.

But, I’ll be prepared next time.

ITSY BITSY MACHINES

The mega international company, IBM, was born in 1911. It was first called Computing-Tabulation-Record Co. Someone, most likely Thomas Watson, after some corporate maneuvers, changed the name to IBM.

My father was hired at the flagship company in Endicott, NY in 1936. He always told his sons that if he took the offer of employee stock options back in the day, our family would have been worth millions by the 1990’s.

The joke was on us.

His kids used to joke with dad.

“Where do you work, dad?” “IBM”, he’d answer.

“You mean ‘Itsy Bitsy Machines.’

Here is a very brief history of how objects that were so big got to be so small (and then big again).

The first attempt to store information was done on an ‘IBM’ card:

[SOURCE: Google Search.]

Information storage then went to the great invention, the Transistor:

[Typical Transistor. Source: Google Search]

Today, computers are now ‘Main Frame’, like a lot of little units working together.

[Typical Main Frames: Source: Google Search.]

I wouldn’t be typing on my laptop, and in 1969 we never would have landed on the moon if big, bulky electronics hadn’t gotten so small (and this is just the beginning.