Fathers and Coffee

One more cup of coffee before I go…

                               –Bob Dylan

[My photo]

This gray, almost monochromatic morning, I lounged in bed reading yesterday’s New York Times.  It’s something we did every weekend for years while we lived in Manhattan.  The fact that’s its Monday is a moot point.  When you’re retired, everyday is like a Sunday.  This may, however, be due to the fact that all the days seem to drift together and half the time I’m never totally sure what day it is.

But, to clear away any misgivings, I can state that it is Monday, November 6…and it’s gloomy outside, like a Tim Burton take on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But, I digress.

I was sipping my coffee, once steaming and now, just below the stage of lukewarm.  It tastes just like it sounds, lukewarm coffee, barely potable.  The odd thing is that if I drop in two ice cubes and wait three minutes, it’s transformed into Iced Coffee!  And, it’ll be a cold day in Yuma before I’ll walk away from a Starbucks Cold Brew.

So, as I sipped the cooling mug, I began to recollect on things my father said to me when I was growing up in the 1950’s.  I’m sure he was not alone in using phrases like:

“If I wanted a fool to do this, I would have done it myself.”

“Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Post-war idioms.

I was strictly a tea drinker well into my teens.  It was mostly a camping thing.  I never had a Lipton before scurrying off to elementary school.  In fact, I was never really that big on caffeine ever, even now.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a mug of Irish Breakfast tea now and then.

I’m recalling an incident that occurred when I was about fifteen.  My family was sitting at a diner and the waitress asked about drinks.  I asked for my first cup of coffee.  My father looked aghast at me.  He shifted his position on the vinyl seat of the booth.  When the server left, he leaned over to me and actually said:

“You know, it’ll stunt your growth”.

It was a cliché that every parent used to threaten their kids about; coffee, tobacco and so many other vices.

I lay in bed and chuckled to myself.  How antiquated, how naive his threats seem to me now.  Then the smile left my face and I felt an overwhelming sadness wash over me.

I thought of my own son and how, because of a divorce, I did not take part in his life when he had his first coffee.  The sadness deepened.  I had missed so many of the years when I, as his father, should have been by his side.

My father’s remark came back to me with a new kind of understanding.  I really don’t believe he truly thought that my first cup of coffee was going to stunt my growth.  I think he was blindsided by my request.  And, most importantly, I think he was terrified.  In a certain way, that first coffee was a sort of rite of passage…something he knew deep within and something he dreaded with great sorrow.

He was losing his son, his youngest son to the terrors of a fast approaching place called adulthood.  His comment was the only thing he could think of to slow down the separation that was to come.  He wanted to hold on to my childhood as long as he could, because after that, there’s no going back, no reversal in time and no going home again.

The separation of father and son.

When my umbilical cord was cut sometime during the evening of May 31, 1947, I was separated physically from my mother.  No such action happens between father and son…until the son asks for his first cup of coffee.

I cling to my son these days.  I kiss his cheek when I see him.  I tell him how much I love him.  I wish I had to lean over, sore back or not, to pick him up.  I wish I had to walk at a tilt while I held his little hand in mine.  I wish he had to lift his head upward to look at me and to extend his arms, asking to be picked up and carried.

Everyday, I can feel the fear my father felt that afternoon, decades ago, when I said yes to a cup of coffee.

[Photo credit: Keith Daniel, Restitutio. Google search.]

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At The Museum…For Decades

[I loved this Alaskan canoe when you could see the people in it.]

The more things change, the more they stay they stay the same…

-Anon.

I never understood the above quote, except to say that I think it means that history repeats itself.

I certainly can get that…considering the Trump Era.  You can figure the rest out for yourself…if you believe in reading history and science.

But’s that’s not the point of this post.  No, I want to go back when I was about ten years old and my parents took me to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).  It was decades ago…long before The Night At The Museum.  

When I was a child, I saw the dioramas of the ice ages, the history of farming along the Hudson valley, the mineral crystals as large as a park bench and, of course, the dinosaurs!

Over the years, when I was a teacher in NYC,  I had chaperoned so many trips to the AMNH that I think I should have been on their payroll.

What is amazing is that some of the building on Central Park West and between 81St and 77th Street has changed dramatically…and some of the exhibits haven’t changed since I was a child. The beautiful old Hayden Planetarium gave way to a giant glass cube.  More ‘state of the art’ but less architecturally beautiful.

[Hill of skulls…I don’t know what skulls they are.]

Is that good?  Shouldn’t museums remains in a state of stasis or should they “change with the times”?

Want my opinion?

I want both.  Up to date science about climate change (yes, it’s real) and astronomy (there’s so much new stuff out there, it will blow your Star Trek Mind).

Take me to the old galleries that haven’t changed in decades and let me dream about how I fell in love with science, anthropology, evolution, minerals and the stars when I was a child.

And, take me to the Hall of the Native Northwest Americans.  Show me the ceremonial mask that is supposed to

be ‘haunted’.  Night staff won’t go near it.

[Is this the haunted mask? I don’t know.]

 

Then, tell me that science and myth don’t blend in a beautiful and mysterious way. And, I’m praying to whoever may be the god of myth and history and childhood, I would love to walk my grandson, Elias, through the halls of history and myth and childhood.

It meant so much so me and I wish I could pass it on to my grandchildren.

That’s what Natural History (and family history) is all about.

 

Confessions Of A Gravestone Photographer

[At work in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Chateaugay, NY]

I would strongly object to anyone who would dare call me morbid.  It is not morbid, in any sense, to appreciate and love old (and new) cemeteries.  It is not morbid to stand over a grave of a total stranger and contemplate his or her life.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York.  Overlooking the village below was Evergreen Cemetery.  I could never tell you the number of times I’ve wandered among the monuments of those who walked the very streets I walked.  Every time I go back to my hometown, Owego, I spend at least an hour strolling the beautiful landscaped, 19th century burial ground.

When I moved to the North Country in 2011, to the Adirondack Mountains where I am closer to Montreal than to any other major urban area, I began to discover the charm of the small graveyards of this part of the state.  Some are hidden and silent among the pine trees, some are six feet from a corn field and some are on breezy hilltops, with faded red barns in the background.

Then, sometime in 2012, I believe, I came across a website called Find-A-Grave.com.  I checked it out and found out that they were seeking volunteers to photograph headstones for people, upon request.  These were folks that lived in Montana or Texas who were doing genealogical research or simply wanted to see the grave of uncle Robert or aunt Hazel.  These people would place a request to Find-A-Grave and I, as a volunteer photographer, would get the message via email.  I then would find the cemetery, locate the grave…take a photo…upload it to the website and move on.  My reward?  Hundreds of thank you emails from the people who made the requests.

“Thank you for taking the time to photograph the headstone of my aunt Martha.  I knew I would never see her final resting place because I live so far away and I’m getting too old to travel”.  This was typical of the emails I would receive.

Doing this, I have learned a great deal about local history and the stories of the families who were so much a part of this area.

  • I’ve stood over the grave of a young girl who was murdered in the 1920’s.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of suicides.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of old farmers who had four wives…all buried nearby.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of two young girls who froze to death in a blizzard.
  • I’ve stood over the grave of a thirty-something woman who came home from jogging along a road several hundred yards away from where I’m writing this, stepped into the shower, and dropped to her knees and died of a massive heart attack.

I did this alone for a few years.  My wife probably thought I was just trying to get out of the house, until I invited her along on one of my “graving” afternoons.  She became my best partner in this ‘hobby’.  She had the sense to look for women’s graves through the name of the husband.  My number of photos taken began to soar.  At this writing, on a mild Indian Summer afternoon in September of 2017, I have contributed over 1,000 photo requests.

It’s been said by some philosopher that one never dies as long as someone speaks your name, remembers you or thinks about you and your life.

I hope some volunteer photographer will stand over my grave and speak my name…then I know I never truly died.

                                                 [Log book and print-out of requests]         [My ‘graving’ kit]

[An extra note: Below is a link to Find-a-Grave.  It’s all free.  You can open an account and make requests for photographs. And remember, it doesn’t cost anything.]

https://www.findagrave.com/

The Toboggan

When I enter our garage from the door that faces our house, I don’t often look up.  What could be up there that I’m avoiding?  Well, there is an old oak bed head-board and foot board that was mine when I grew up at 420 Front Street, Owego, NY.  There are stickers of cowboys and indians on the head-board.  There are numerous tiny indentations of BB hits when I was young and used the head-board as a backdrop for my Daisy rifle.  The only other item of mine, settled and resting on the 2 x 4 inch cross pieces of the garage, is The Toboggan.

I stood and stared at the old sled for half an hour.  I brought it up here, to our place in the Adirondacks, intending it to be my first “project”.

My hands last handled this antique when we had to empty my father’s house after he passed in 2004.  Before that, I had placed it in the garage in Owego. Sometime in the early 1990’s, I stored it in the barn that was part of the house that my wife had owned in the years before we met.  The house was in Milford, PA.

I stood and stared and the memories came slowly at first and then I couldn’t stop them from filling my head with the past.

Was this the sled that my brothers tried to push me down the small hill behind our house in Owego?  There wasn’t much of a slope so I went nowhere until Chris or Denny ran behind me and pushed me onward.

That’s what brothers do.

Was this the sled that I took to a snowy hillside near Owego and jumped on behind Mary, my girlfriend, as we sailed through drifts of snow and patches of weeds and scrubs?  I don’t remember.

Was this the sled that came with me when I moved to a farm-house in the early 1970’s and I began my teaching career?  And also began a new role as a father to my 1 1/2-year-old girl, Erin?  I would take her on tours of the harvested cornfields that surrounded our lonely house on a snow-covered and wind-swept hill–pulling her behind me?

When I went ice skating with my brother Dan on a nearby frozen pond (before “they” broke the dam and drained the pond) and he was interested in film and I would pull them both while he filmed?  After Dan finished his project, I would skate backwards (I could, you know), pulling Erin on the toboggan and giving her a wicked swirl that would almost throw her sliding across the ice on her own.

The toboggan disappeared into the rafters of the slanted old garage behind our house in Owego–to be forgotten for years–with one exception.

I was informed of a great place to go tobogganing, the IBM Country Club in Endicott (or was it Endwell, NY)?  The golf course had a hill that was very popular.

So, one day in the mid-1970’s, we took the old sled down from my dad’s garage and headed for the slopes.  It proved to be a great place indeed.  Then I noticed that someone had built up a small snow bump.  I told Erin that before I would take her over it, I would have to first try it myself.

Off I went, toward the little bump.  The closer I glided toward the bump, the bigger it became.  When I hit it, I rose into the sky and felt I was going to land in someones backyard, across the river in Vestal.  I was airborne for what seemed like forty-five minutes, before I hit the ground.  The toboggan went one direction and my eye-glasses went another.  I simply came straight down onto the slope sliding in a third direction and feeling for broken bones before I came to an abrupt halt against a small tree.

“Mommy? Can Daddy do that again?” was all I could hear Erin cry out.

Was she kidding? My head buzzed for two days.

Back to my garage.  So there is the toboggan.  I had a fleeting thought about restoring it (once again) and mounting it on the wall in our screened-in porch.  It would require the removal of two antique snowshoes, but there are plenty of places on our walls to mount them in a new location. Ironically, the brand name stenciled in orange paint, on the curved bow reads: ADIRONDACK.

There’s a fair amount of dust on the old sled.  My best guess as to its age would be 90+ years.  But there’s one thing I am certain of; toboggans aren’t meant to gather dust.  Their made for the young and the old to ride on and scream from as it flashes past an old barn, an old tree or a fresh snowdrift.  They’re made to carry at least four adults, six kids and a metric ton of memories.

And, once it’s on the wall, I would never be asked to “do it again” on any slope, on any mountain or hill in the Adirondacks.

[The intended site of the restored toboggan]

 

 

A Farewell Letter To Jimmy

merrillandmeburlington

Hey, Jimmy…I can’t bring myself to call you James.  For most of my life you’ve been Jimmy, so there it is.  Mariam and I were in Burlington just this past weekend.  As I wandered up and down Church Street I kept wondering where the restaurant was that we met for the first time in over 50 years.  Mariam said she remembered which block it was on.  I wondered how you were doing…

I was remembering the old days in Owego.  Craig Phelps was probably the nearest neighbor (he lived across the street from me, remember?). But you were the next closest.  Your house was just across the RR tracks and hard by the Brick Pond.  Boy, did we have fun exploring the Pond in those days when only  a handful of kids knew about it?  You and I spent endless hours in our backyards playing “cowboys & indians” and army games with my brother and ‘Doc’ Phelps.  That was quite a time.  It was the time of our lives when few troubling things touched us.

Innocent children.  Innocent young boys playing in fields near the Susquehanna.  Fields of fair games and fair play.  Fields of Youth.

We were rarely ever apart in our years at St. Patrick’s School.  It was in OFA…high school…that we drifted apart.  We hung in different circles of friends.

Then one day (was it 1964? 1963?) you brought over an album for me to listen to.  We sat on our sofa at 420 Front Street and I heard the voice of Bob Dylan for the first time.  I was a Dion fan.  I didn’t get Bob at all.  I said: “This guy can’t sing”.  It was about a year later when I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on a radio station when I was driving back from working at Carroll’s Hamburgers in Vestal.

I got it.  You gave it to me.

Later, we sat on the steps of my house and you talked about this thing happening in Viet Nam.  I was too wrapped up in my girlfriend and plans for college to fully understand…in 1965…what was happening.

You enlisted and you served with honor and I heard you got a medal of some kind for bravery.

Jimmy, you fell below the radar after high school and I did not hear anything about you until I was asked to try to locate you for the 50th Reunion in September of 2015.  Things happened and I was able to find your phone number.  I called and we met for lunch in Burlington.  Such a great time we had…remember?  We recalled the old days and caught up on how “not well” you were.

I wrote a blog about our lunch.  It was quite popular among our Owego friends.

Then, this morning, I get some news on Facebook about you.  News that made me weep for a time as I reflected on our history.

We’ll never explore the Brick Pond again, Jimmy.  We’ll never play war games in our backyards.  Ever again.

Wait, that’s not true…I’ll always remember the times we had and the growing up we did together.  I’ll recall those childhood games again and again to keep your memory alive.  I’ll walk around the Brick Pond again…in your honor.

RIP, my good, gentle and great old buddy.  I’m gonna miss you…….You are the friend I’ve known the longest…in my life.

pat-and-jimmie

 

The Night Of The Living AA’s: Report #3

Thermometer

I’m sitting on the sofa in our screened-in porch listening to the rain falling, heavily and with vigor, on our deck, roof and the new leaves of the maples.  I want another mug of Dorset tea, but that would mean going into the kitchen one more time.

I’m reluctant to do that.  There is something going on in the kitchen that causes me to suffer the most prolonged insomnia and induces the more horrific nightmares when sleep does finally come to my weary and reddened eyes.

I have only myself to blame…

I’ve always wanted to own an indoor/outdoor thermometer.  I wanted one even as a young child.  While the other boys in my neighborhood would be playing catch or stealing apples from the old orchard or riding their bikes around the block singing: “Back in the Saddle Again”, I would be dreaming of owning a device that would let me know what the temperature was both inside my home and outside in the yard. The only problem was that these instruments weren’t yet invented.  If I wanted to know how cold it was, I would have to don a coat and flannel-lined jeans and trudge out to the wall of the garage and look up at the mercury column, inside a glass tube that was attached to a Coca Cola advertisement.

Now, sixty years later, I own three of these wonderful little units.  There’s one in my “man-cave” in the lower level of our house.  There’s one still in the box, just as it was when I bought it at a Costco’s in Jupiter, Florida.

And, there is the one in the kitchen…on the narrow sill just above the sink.  It’s small.  It’s accurate.  And, it simply terrifies me.

I’ve written two posts on this Radio Shack model before (or maybe one blog and a Facebook post, I can’t remember).  So, for those who have been following me over the years, you may know what’s coming next in this particular report.  For those of you who are more recent “followers” of my stuff here on WordPress, then be afraid, be very afraid.  Do not let your children read this post.  If you’re weak of heart or a faithful church-goer, you may want to stop here.

You’ve been warned!

You see, my friends, my wife and I bought this house in 2000.  We used it as a vacation home for a number of years, renting it out to people willing to come to the Adirondacks and get bitten by black flies and deer flies and mosquitoes while enjoying the hiking, boating and swimming that the Park offers.

We were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the time.  It was the perfect weekend get-a-way retreat for us when we felt the need to escape the artistic and cultural life of a vibrant city.  It was only a mere six and a half hour drive (305 miles) from our front door on W. 93rd St. to the driveway at 58 Garondah Road.

Within a month or two of buying the house, I happened to be in the Saranac Lake Radio Shack.  I was looking over the radios and kits of all sorts when I spotted it.  There it was.  An indoor/outdoor thermometer!

Naturally, I bought it and within an hour I had it up and running.  I carefully placed the outdoor sensor outside our kitchen window and behind a shutter…in the shade.  It was this very same thermometer that I glanced at one evening while we making a quick winter trip to use our new L.L.Bean snowshoes, and saw that it was -36 degrees.  This was probably the first time that I began to question why we had chosen to live this far north.

I put in two AA batteries.  It was 2000.  At first, for a year or two, everything went smoothly.  Then, I began to notice something strange…something sinister…something that has grown more terrifying as year came and went.

The indoor/outdoor kept working!

“What’s wrong with thing?” I asked Mariam.  “It should have needed new batteries by now.  Nothing made since 1957 was made to last more that a few years.”

I knew this was especially true of batteries.  Why else would places like Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Radio Shack sell them in packages of sixty?

And, this, dear reader is where the story becomes unnatural…eerie…and downright frightening.  It’s been sixteen years since I put in those two AA batteries…and they are still working!  It’s not my imagination.  I will swear to the good Lord above that I have not replaced those two batteries.  I want desperately to open the back of the indoor/outdoor thermometer and check on the brand, but I am afraid to open the small plastic door.  I’ve seen enough Steven Spielberg movies to know that when you open certain items, unholy things come, like smoke from a clay Churchwarden pipe and the demons of the Other World are released.

I have enough guilt in my heart already…I don’t need to unleash Satan or whatever into this world.  It’s already too violent, religiously insane and terrorizing…and I’m not just talking about Donald Trump here.

But, something is powering my indoor/outdoor thermometer. Something sinister and unworldly.  It certainly can’t be the AA batteries…sixteen years is fifteen and a half years beyond their expected lifetime.

I still want a second mug of Dorset tea.  I think I’ll ask Mariam to go into the kitchen to make it for me.  I can claim my back hurts.

And, it does.  I have an MRI to prove it.

Gathering Dust

IceAxe

I was dusting some items in our home the other day.  If you find that unusual, you should see the amount of dust that can accumulate in a house that was empty for almost six months.  We weren’t even here.  So, where did it come from?  And, it’s not that we keep an unclean home.  I can’t tell you how many boxes of Swiffer Sweeper we have been through. (I can’t tell you how much we recommend this state-of-the-art product!)

That’s another story.

I ran my finger along the top of one the most precious items I own.  It’s an ice axe.  I bought it in the spring of 1964, when I was getting ready to join my brother on the Juneau Icefield for the summer.

I found a bit of white…a bit of dust on my finger.  How could I have not attended to this most coveted item…in my cleaning?

You must understand something.  You can’t get these ice axes anymore.  Oh, maybe in some tiny Swiss alpine shop in Zermatt, but not here…unless you’re willing to pay an outrageous price.  This ice axe is made of ash (maybe hickory), the kind that Edmund Hillary used on Everest in 1953…on the first ascent (maybe).  What you get today, if you find yourself ordering an ice axe, it will be made of anodized aluminum or carbon fiber or some sort of alloy devised by NASA for the International Space Station.

But, my ice axe (note to reader:  it is not called an  “ice pick”.  That is so gauche a term.  It’s an ice axe…so no further discussion here, ok.) An ice axe of an old classic style that you see now in Museums of Alpine History.

Yes, I ran my finger along the top and found dust.  Not so surprising, unless you’re like me…items from earlier years rarely collected dust.  Once I put away the toys of childhood, they stayed mostly out of sight…and therefore out of mind.  There is an exception or two: my Lionel locomotive and a Lone Ranger lunch box.  But, the ice axe was somehow different.  It represented a transition from youth to adulthood and I often would stare at it, up there on the wall reflecting back on the times that were brighter, better, more youthful, full of energy and promise.  I climbed nameless peaks with it in my right hand and even saved myself from falling into a crevasse on a July day in 1964.

This was a special item I owned. I even went into my fathers forbidden workshop and wood burned my initials into the shaft:  P.J.EGAN.  My childhood girlfriend stood by be as I did that.  She kissed it for good luck (al least in my memory she did).  Later, I rubbed boiled Linseed Oil into the wood until my forearm ached.

It was an object of utility, craftsmanship, art and beauty.

Then, when my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks in 2011, I took the ice axe and mounted it on the wall.  It was several weeks until I realized what it was that I had done.  I hung up my ice axe.  This is the ultimate “well, I’m done with that stage of my life” moment.  It’s like when you hand your car keys to your child because you can’t drive anymore…safely.  But, I wasn’t that old…was I?

I walked over to my “alpine bookshelf” and looked at the titles and saw the hardware: the pitons, carabiners and chocks…tools of a rock climber.  I was fairly good in the 1970’s.  They were coated in a thin layer of dust.

I picked up Direttissima, by Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston (someone you should google someday when it’s raining and you want to read about a tragic, enigmatic person), and, again, I blew enough dust off the top pages that I began to sneeze like it was a late summer day in a field of ragweed.

AlpineBooks

So, this was my past?  This is was what I have left of my glory days on the glaciers, in the bars of Juneau…and watching Eagles soar at 10:00 pm when I was fishing out of Auk Bay?

Dusty books and a very special dusty ice axe…mounted on a thinly paneled wall in our home?

This was me once:

In the Col Looking West (2)

Are the glory days really behind us…gathering dust?