For Me? It Was a Hard Days Night

Lennon

[Source: Google search.]

There were no classes scheduled for that Monday. It was parent/teacher conference day at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut. I was assigned to meet the parents of my students in an office close to the front entrance. I sat at the head of a large conference table made of a dark wood. Mahogany? Perhaps.

The parents were on a set schedule. I had a list of those in line waiting to discuss their sons/daughters academic performance. I didn’t have a lot to say to many of the fathers, mothers and couples that sat down, each at their appropriate time, since 99.9% of my students (grade range was from 9th to 12th) were serious about their work, were not discipline problems and were polite to me as their teacher. The most critical remark I made most of the afternoon was: “Your child needs to raise their hand more often”.

Sometime in mid-afternoon something in the air changed.

[Meanwhile, in New York City, a young man was hanging out near the entrance of the Dakota Building on Central Park West and 72nd Street.]

The door opened and a man and woman walked in and took a seat. The man’s head was covered by a fair-sized bandage. The couple held hands. The husband spoke first.

“I hate to waste your time, Mr. Egan, but I’m not really concerned very much right now about my daughter’s behavior in your class.”

I stared at him and waited.

“Four days ago I was caught in a fire at the Stouffer’s Inn where a conference for the Stouffer Company was being held. I’m sure you read about it. Twenty-six of my fellow employees were killed. I ran out of the building and into the arms of firemen. The guy behind me didn’t make it.”

I noticed the couple’s hands tightened their grip.

“I am more thankful for being alive and ready to celebrate the holidays as a family than I am about my wonderful daughter. No offense, Mr. Egan, but I have more important issues to deal with right now.”

I was speechless. “Your daughter is a great student. I’m so very sorry about…”, I couldn’t finish my sentence. The couple rose from their seats. We shook hands and they were gone. I sat in silence hoping the next set of parents would be late.

After the conferences were over, a small group of teachers gathered at the front door. Someone suggested we go to a restaurant/bar to have a drink. I followed.

We sat with our beers watching some kind of comedy show. I wasn’t laughing. Suddenly, the TV was switched off and the lights came on. The manager came out and said that the bar just received a bomb threat and that we would all have to leave.

[The guy was still standing near the main entrance of the Dakota on 72nd Street.]

Most of the teachers drove away leaving three of the science teachers in the parking lot. Two of the teachers shared a small house beside a lake just north of Ridgefield. One of them suggested that we drive to their house and have one more beer.

I remember sitting on the sofa. One of teachers was stretched out on a Lazy-Boy chair. My other friend, Jeff, was in the kitchen rummaging the fridge for two beers. The TV was on.

Whatever show was being aired, it was interrupted by a “news bulletin”. The man was standing in a Manhattan street with his hand-held microphone. What he said next made me stand up.

“Jeff,” I said, “come here quick!”

Jeff came in the room. The other teacher sat up in the Lazy-Boy.

The reporter said: “It’s official. It’s now been confirmed that John Lennon is dead. According to NYPD, he was shot by a young man who had been waiting for John and his wife Yoko Ono to arrive in their limo. All this happened just a short time ago here.” He pointed to the archway of the Dakota entrance. The camera followed his arm.

My friend Jeff visibly paled. I felt nauseous. We watched for a few minutes and I left.

Never have I felt the sorrow that hung in my heart as I slowly drove home that wretched night.

newspaper

[Source: Google search.]

 

Advertisements

Autumn And Gravestones

[Sitting and thinking at Forest Cemetery, St. Regis Falls, NY.]

Now that there is six inches of fresh snow on the ground and the trees are bare and the world outside our picture window is monochromatic, I can admit that I miss the late summer, the coolness of autumn days and the color of the trees.

I’ll also miss my favorite cemeteries. The best time of year to roam the country graveyards has come and gone. I’ll have to wait until mid-summer, after the mud and the bugs, until I can go “graving” again.

Does it all sound morbid to you? Too melancholy? It shouldn’t. I enjoy old cemeteries where I can learn local history and make up life stories of those who are interred beneath my feet.

And I have a perfectly good reason to wander the burying grounds. I am a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com. I get requests from people who live in places like Iowa and Nebraska asking for a photo of their grandfather’s headstone, or a memorial to an aunt’s grave they will never visit…never have a chance to leave a flower or a penny on the gravestone. They reply in emails how glad they are to have such a photo. It helps them build their family trees on Ancestry.com or some other genealogy site. Or (as they have written), share the photo with a grandchild, son, niece or spouse.

I love doing this for these people. I ask for nothing in return, except for a simple “thank you”.

Every human has a story that tells of their lives, even those who have been buried 150 years ago. I’ve stood over the graves and photographed headstones of suicides, murder victims, children who lived two days and men and women who lived to their 90+ years. I’ve wept over the graves of people whose families could only manage a hand-made headstone made of poured concrete and wrote the name and death dates with their fingers.

So many stories. So many headstones. So many epitaphs. So much grief.

But, time heals those wounds…they say.

Of Time and Distance: A Departing

[Corfe Castle]

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat on unmowed grass leaning against a stone wall. I was on the grounds of Corfe Castle in south Dorset. The mason who built my backrest had fitted the stones into their places over 1,000 years ago. There was still a strong sun in the west and the sky was about as blue as any sky can get. The cool breeze, however, forced me to zip up my fleece vest.

I was thinking of our journey that is nearly over.

Tonight, I’m sitting in front of a MacBook laptop in room 412 of the Doubletree Hotel in Southampton struggling to find the words to describe our travels.

I am thinking about our journey that is nearly over.

Tomorrow, at this time, I’ll be standing on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as it plows its way through the waters of the Atlantic ocean heading for New York City.

I’m pretty sure I will be thinking of our journey that will soon be over…July 1 to be precise…barring any major nautical distractions.

Five weeks ago, I sat at Gate 42 of the American Airlines terminal waiting to board our flight to Paris.

Where did the time go?

Paris~~We stayed in a tiny room of the Hotel Atlantis a few steps from the Church of St. Suplice. Days seemed to fly by as we walked through Pere Lachaise cemetery, saw a performance at the Paris Lido, visited the Louvre and stood in the sun at the front door of Notre Dame. We found a shady bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I felt like an artist as I opened my watercolor pencil set and made two drawings. I looked at my work…I’m no artist…just a traveler.

[Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris]

Onto…

Brussels~~Only a brief stop to catch a train to Bruges, which is to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful and melancholy cities I’ve ever visited. After a touristy canal boat ride, we sat in a small waterside bar. We conversed with the waitress. I asked her if she was married.

“No,” she said looking at the water. “No one wants to marry me.”

[Bruges, Belgium]

Back to…

Brussels~~This time we stayed for four days. We befriended a bartender named Aurora. She was from France and was completing an internship at the Marriott. We became Facebook friends. After one failed attempt to locate the Market Place, we found it down one cobblestone lane. Once in the Square, you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but ornate buildings highlighted in gold gilt. Outside the City Hall, I watched a middle-aged man get out of a car and straighten his tie. He was on his way to be married. I caught and held his gaze as he walked to the large oak doors. I gave him a two finger salute from my right eyebrow. He smiled, nodded and went inside…proud, happy, in love and full of hope.

Onto…

London~~A few hours after boarding the Eurostar, we got off the train at St. Pancras Station. Our hotel was the best one yet in our travels. It was just steps from the frenzy of Trafalgar Square. We visited the National Gallery and had dinner at the Sherlock Holmes pub near our hotel. Next evening, we got tickets to The Play That Went Wrong. Madcap misadventures and very funny.

[The Sherlock Holmes]

Onto…

Edinburgh~~Here we climbed the hill to see part of the Castle. In the evening we saw Wicked at a theater two doors away. Trust me, it was a great show for a far less ticket cost than New York City. At night, we took in a sort of haunted Edinburgh walking tour.

It was time to begin our driving part of the trip. Got a rental at the Hertz less than 100 yards from our hotel. It was a perky KIA with a GPS. After a short drive to Durham to visit the Cathedral (massive, awesome but NO PHOTOS ALLOWED) we spent the night in a small hotel.

Onto…

Litchfield~~Again another Cathedral city. This prize was one of the best of all the cathedrals I’ve visited in the UK.

 

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Onto…

Grassington~~We’re in the “Switzerland of England”, but the time had come to test my back and right foot on a footpath. Things didn’t feel right. Lower back pain and pain in my foot despite doses of Alleve. Our main goal for us was to explore the Yorkshire Dales, but all we managed was a few miles one day, a few the next and 3.5 miles on the third day. We never unpacked our hiking boots!

[Part of the Grassington walk]

Onto…

Gillingham, in North Dorset~~I felt like I had arrived home. Most of you know that I lived and taught in Dorset in the mid-1980’s. I walked the footpaths every weekend that I wasn’t visiting a cathedral. My housemate was a young teacher named Tim. Now, Tim is semi-retired and does some consulting work with schools. He, and his wife Jo have put us up several times in their spare apartment. They have three children. George is working in London. Thomas is going to university and 11 year-old Anna, who is being looked at by the Royal Ballet. She’s very good.

[Tim, Anna & Jo.]

We spent six nights at Tim’s house, helping him one evening to celebrate England’s win over Tunisia in the World Cup. We spent our days driving around Dorset and revisiting places I knew and loved. Of all the Counties in England, I feel that Dorset is the most beautiful. The land of Thomas Hardy.

After a lovely farewell dinner, it was

Onto…

Corfe Castle~~We stayed at an old manor house. The first night we drove a few miles to Wareham and had a dinner with another friend from the 1980’s. Marion was the art teacher when I first met her. A most remarkable woman.

Onto…

Southampton~~And this is where I now sit, writing, thinking and remembering. Where did those 33 years go when I was so young and healthy that 9 mile walks were mere afternoon strolls.

At the front end of a six-week holiday, it seemed like such a very long time. But it passed like two blinks of my itchy right eye.

I wonder. I wonder about the stone mason who built the wall I sat against yesterday? If he walked out of the past and sat beside me to watch the afternoon sun descend on south Dorset, would he have the same questions I’ve been asking?

Would he ask what happened to that 1,000 years? Where did it all go?

[All photos belong to me and are copyrighted]

Yesterday Afternoon And An Afternoon Thirty-Three Years Ago

[The tomb of Joseph and Caroline Damer]

Thirty-three years ago I parked a VW Polo in a small space a short distance from the village of Milton Abbas. I was an exchange teacher at a school in Dorset, England. A teacher friend told me that I must visit an Abbey near Milton Abbas. I was open for any suggestions so off I went on a Saturday afternoon.

I can recall the day in great detail. It was crisp and clear and the air was chilly enough to slice like a razor through my new heavy wool sweater. I walked along a gravel path. There was (and still is) a private school on the grounds of the Abbey. I was told it was where “To Serve Them All My Days” was filmed. The movie was a sort of “Mr. Chips” kind of story about a teacher who spent his entire professional life…teaching.

But, I digress.

I wasn’t there to see the school. The Abbey was my goal. I can’t say it was an easy place to find. It’s basically located in the middle of an isolated part of Dorset. The roads were narrow and the hedgerows were brushing against my left rear-view mirror. If I met an oncoming vehicle, one of us had to pull over and let the other pass by.

[The fields near the Abbey]

After walking the path, I stood at the front entrance of the Abbey. The exterior was covered with moss and lichen. It was a cathedral on a small-scale. The flying buttresses were almost reachable.

I opened the door expecting to enter a typical English church. Instead, I held my breath and stood, trying to take in one of the most awesome sites I had seen so far in England.

To my left was a marble tomb. The ceiling had vaulting that would make an architect sigh.

[Vaulting]

That was more than three decades ago. Yesterday, I revisited the Abbey with my wife. I needed Mariam to see this place. Nothing had changed with the exception of the organ that was wrapped to protect it from the dust of some interior work.

People had worshipped on this site since 964 B.C.E. That’s over 1,000 years of prayers and funerals, weddings and quiet contemplation. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a millennium.

The building I stood in yesterday is not the original. The first structure burned in 1309. Changes too confusing and complicated for this space occurred over the centuries.

In 1752, the Abbey and grounds were taken over by a Joseph Damer (Lord Milton). He had a wife, Caroline, whom he loved dearly. Death separated the two. She died young. Joseph commissioned a tomb of white marble-topped with an effigy of the two of them to honor their marriage.

I approached the figures. I reached out and stroked Caroline’s marble hair. I glanced up and saw Joseph staring into my eyes. His white marble orbs unnerved me.

“Take your hands away from my wife’s forehead,” he said with white accusing eyes. I ran my hand down her cold marble arm. I squeezed her delicate fingers.

All of it was cold white marble.

 

[A full view of the Damer tomb]

I still wear the heavy wool sweater that I had on that day, thirty-three years ago. Some things like well-made sweaters and Abbeys are made to last and last and last.

 

[Beauty and Death]

[The view from the entrance of the Abbey]

[Information source: britainexpress.com (Google search)]

[All photos are mine]

 

A Walk Through Lichfield Cathedral

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Some people have life-lists of the birds they have seen. Some people have collections of autographs of rock stars or artists. A fair number of people pay a ton of money for signed baseballs; signed by Ted Williams, Goose Gossage or Ron Guidry.

That’s great. Many of these things can be framed and mounted on the wall of the hallway or the study in  their home. Signed baseballs can be kept in glass boxes on an office desk of an attorney who is handling your divorce or settling your estate.

But some lists need special attention.

My particular list is visiting all the English Cathedrals that I can manage. I’ve not completed a “to do” a list yet, but I can add two for this trip.

A word about the “to do” list. This post is not about things. It’s about memories, faith, beauty of architecture, hope and thought. I’m not visiting these Cathedrals just to tick them from my list. I’m not visiting and photographing and saying…”I’ve been there and done that.”

No, I wanted to study the Gothic and Norman architecture of each place. Who is buried where? What Baron or Lord or Lady is buried against this wall? What Vicar is buried under our feet in the nave?

What farmer or mason worker lay beneath the grass outside, on the lawn, under the green grass…not invited into the floor or walls of the Cathedral?

But time was not on our side. Nor were many rules.

“NO PICTURES IN DURHAM CATHEDRAL”

So I discovered that I would be near Lichfield Cathedral. I knew this one was a winner from what little research I did before the trip. We went in and the size and structure of the nave and alters took your breath away.

Some images:

[The effigies of an older daughter and young son. William and Mary]

[The Nave of Lichfield Cathedral]

These are places that do not belong on an “to do list”

Places like this, of beauty and peace and contemplation can’t be kept in a photo file, only in your heart.

[All photos are mine]

[Note: I will post a video with organ music of the the time we spent in Litchfield when the opportunity arrives.]

 

 

Her Husband Is Poorly: A First Walk In Yorkshire

[Grassington, Yorkshire.]

We’re staying in Grassington, Yorkshire. I saw somewhere it was called the “Swiss Alps of England”.  I can get the sense of that. No snow-capped peaks and Matterhorns, but the Dales are pure and English and brimming with grand vistas. There are enough walking paths to satisfy the Swiss Alpine Club, the Sierra Club, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the odd afternoons when the Grassington Horticulture Society has run out of gardens to visit.

Today was the first day that I felt like taking a walk. We’d been traveling a great deal and travel, as we know, is broadening, but also very tiring for a guy who just turned 71 years old. So, we chose a very short walk from the town center to a small church at Linton Falls. The entire hike was a bit over a mile.

But, I got my scenic jolt among the stone walls, the fields of sheep and the church at the end of the walk.

[Yes, that’s me.]

We found the small church and spent some time inside studying the Norman columns and arches. There was a Norman baptismal font. A few crypts were on the floor of the nave. One man died in 1665. Only his initials were given.

[St. Michael’s of Linton]

Then, after sitting in quiet contemplation for a short time…I noticed the window.

It was really a place that I would call a ‘prayer alcove’.

[The prayer window/alcove]

There was a small pad of paper. A pencil. A few prayer cards, some stick pins and two cork boards.

I took a moment to read a few prayer requests. After the second one, I felt an unexpected sorrow and pity for the person who wrote it. I’m assuming it was a woman…but I’ll never know. It was a simple note, not even a real request. Just a simple statement which read:

A good friend who’s husband is poorly.

 

[Another part of the prayer board.]

The word ‘poorly’ hinted to me that it was a British person who wrote this. As usual I began to wonder where she lived, who was her friend? How poorly was he? She clearly felt desperate and desolate enough to go to a remote church and post this humble note. Did she light a candle at Salisbury Cathedral?

But, most of all, I failed to notice the date (if there was one) and I wondered if the husband was still alive…

We began to make our way back to downtown Grassington. It was sunny and hot. The sheep I saw earlier were all laying down in the fields. We stepped aside for many walkers. We side-stepped for many dogs. The Brits love their dogs. So many signs about keeping the dog leashed…so few leashes.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead. I took pictures of the ferns and wildflowers growing between the rocks of the walled path.

I wondered about the ‘poorly husband’.

I’m not a praying man, but…

[All photos are mine]

 

The First Full Day In Edinburgh

[The Scott Memorial being evacuated by the police.]

I waited while Mariam took her shower and washed her hair. I felt like we were being delayed. We’re travelers, we don’t need showers. Tourists take showers.

So, I snuggle deeper into the comforter and went to Spotify. She seemed to take forever to wash her hair and do whatever women do in the only bathroom in the suite, and a guy has to relieve himself.

Once I secured Spotify ( not easy in any of the hotels we’ve been staying in), I decided to get her in the mood of the city and country we were touring.

After five playings of Scotland The Brave and two readings of Coming Through The Rye, I think she got the point.

She knew we were in Scotland.

Our first job of the day was to visit a dart shop and buy my son a dart set. I won’t say more. It’s going to be a surprise. Especially when I give him the 23 gram Titanium shafts. Don’t tell him.

We walked down Ely Street. The sandstone townhouses were beautiful.

I next secured tickets to an American musical that just happens to be playing about 30 feet from our hotel door. We’re seeing Wicked. (For a fraction of what we’d pay in NYC).

We decided to walk to the Edinburgh Castle. When we got to the Scott memorial, the police began to evacuate and tape off the whole area.

[Prince Street Garden}

I’ll buy The Scotsman tomorrow and find out what we almost became a part of. Someone told me that the tower gets a lot of jumpers. That’s very sad to hear that this beautiful and historical city has people who want to take a quick exit to oblivion.

Which takes us to our post dinner activity. We booked a tour called Doomed, Dead and Buried. I couldn’t be more pleased. The tour guide was a beguiling young Scotswoman named Rachel. She wore a hooded cape. There was a brass clasp at her neck and she knew how to tell a story.

[Rachel, our ghost tour guide. Okay, what guy wouldn’t have a slight crush on her?]

If you want to hear those stories, you’ll have to come here and take the tour. I’m too exhausted to retell anything she said.

[A “close”…the name I can not remember}

This is a city that could grow on me. Dark history and a bright future.

I was here about thirty-three years ago and I remember nothing of that trip, except that I was very cold on most evenings.

Perhaps that’s why one can smell the coal smoke in the air (I’m assuming that coal is still used here, hopefully I’m wrong).

As we left a pub after the Ghost Tour, I heard bagpipes in the distance.

Someone was playing Scotland The Brave.