The Tragedy of the Commons

[The High Peaks.]

But the darkest scriptures of the mountains are illumined with bright passages of love that never fail to make themselves felt when one is alone.

–John Muir

There is irony lurking just below the surface of this blog. Irony, youth, pleasant times and not so pleasant times. There’s quietness and beauty sublime. And, dogs.

It is a blog that truthfully depicts two divergent paths. My own and that of a geological ancient mountain range. Neither narrative ends well. Unless you are gifted with a perception so delicate and deep, you can feel the moods of mountains. Alternatively, the other track is owned by me. That’s not so difficult to read…for you or me.

The photo shown above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. Nestled in the skyline is Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State. Now for the irony part…every mountain you can see has been climbed by me, at least once. I’ve summited Marcy at least twenty times. I began my quest to be a 46’er in the fall of 1959. I climbed about half of the required peaks…then decided my efforts were akin to earning a Boy Scout Merit Badge. I simply lost interest in accumulating mountains so that I could wear the coveted patch proving I “knew all about climbing.” I must say that I had unforgettably great times back in the day. My friend, Greg Stella and I once spent the night on Marcy’s summit…illegally. It was great fun to count endless stars and to wake up to an ice storm. Ah, we were young and strong. As Gordon Lightfoot puts it:

We were brave mountaineers we never were bothered by time.

Now for the irony part. Back in the day, we indeed were brave mountaineers…and then, somehow, the years caught up with us. Greg is now battling an illness and I can hardly walk the breath of our living room without pain…low in my spine and spectacularly painful.

One moment we were arguing over whether to climb two or three peaks before the sun set. A few blinks later, I’m reaching for a cane and waiting for a new injection in my L-2 and L-3 section of my spine. Irony. The thing I loved the most is the thing I cannot have.

Jump to the early 1960’s. Two events colluded to make my love of the High Peaks begin to evaporate like a late morning mist.

Lake Placid (and New York State) decided that the joys of hiking would convert to commercial success. That, along with the rapidly growing interest in hiking resulted in several elements (mostly negative). The crowds came and they never stopped arriving. Essex County is now faced with a traffic situation worthy of Manhattan. Permits are being tested. The groups of hikers have no place to camp. And the dogs are more often than not, off leash. It’s a perfect example of The Tragedy of the Commons. A village in the Alps decided to allow the sheep, etc to graze on a common pasture. Within a few years, the overuse of the land and the hungry sheep rendered the commons useless.

I was lucky. Once I hiked the heart of the High Peaks for five days without encountering a soul.

One has to look long and hard to find anyplace in the Park that can deliver a modicum of a true wilderness experience.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a Forest Ranger. Not anymore. I don’t want to spend my precious time rescuing hikers who have no idea about this once-special environment and who don’t have the mind-set to appreciate the quiet times that we all need now and forever.

Adulthood Rising

I have a hard time learning languages. Some people have an ability to pick up German, Portuguese, Farsi or Russian with ease. High School French was the first of my stumbling blocks. I used to “get sick” in the morning to avoid Mrs. Lowe’s first period freshman French class. I tried…I really tried…to understand the conjugation of verbs, but found only limited success. As an adult I can order dinner in Paris and get a hotel room arranged. That’s about it. Then again that’s about all a guy really needs to know.

In the 1980’s I asked the French teacher at the school I was teaching in (I was a possible chaperone for a trip to Paris with the French Club) how to say “Hi Cupcake, can I buy you a drink?” Petite gateau is a far as her suggestion went. I never chaperoned the trip.

But I digress.

I didn’t cut all of Mrs. Lowe’s classes however. Every so often she would abandon her grammar lessons and show us a film about French culture. That was very cool because no one is as cultured as the French. One day she ran a documentary about Maurice Utrillo, the French painter (1883-1955). I was fascinated by his work. He became one of my favorite artists. There was something about his style…

An Utrillo Painting
[Source: Google Search]

Something changed in me that day. I was suddenly alert to nature in a way that was new and fresh. I had grown up a little after that film. I grew up more than I was expected. I took a renewed interest in our backyard. It was in the Spring. I would lay on my stomach in some hidden corner of our yard and would begin to believe I could watch the grass grow and the flowers bloom. All this before any Cannabis was in the picture.

The air smelled different and clouds took on meanings and shapes I never noticed before. Teenage love permeated every cell in my young body. The whole wide world had crossed the threshold of my early timid feelings of adulthood. Yes, teenage love had its grip on me. But, being me and being full of self-doubt and insecurity I was unsure of everything–even love.

I spotted a daisy. I knew the drill, that age old practice of using a daisy to find out if she loved me. I never gave much thought to the idea of raping a daisy to learn the fate of my love. I see it now as akin to a Native American killing a buffalo or a deer. You apologized to it and thanked it for giving up its life and aiding in your survival. So, there I sat in the grass and plucked the petals…one by one.

“She loves me. She loves me not.”

As I was approaching the final half-dozen petals I could see ahead. It was going to end in a resoundingly quiet “She loves me not”. I had to think fast. I feigned pulling the white petal and continued the countdown.

In the end, she loved me. Ultimately I should have continued my count if you get my subtext.

Now I sit, an old man, musing and missing my early life before I knew real pain. That’s what old men do…they sit and think. My daughter is now riding a heat wave from Hell in distant Seattle. My son will soon be married and will rely less on “Pops” as the years move on.

Yes, I sit and think. I gathered a small bunch of daisies today during a short walk and put them in a pale green vase. I thought of that daisy from my backyard.

And thanks to Mrs. Lowe, I have an abiding love of Maurice Utrillo.

The Little Boy And The Big Canoe: A Memory

[Not my brothers canoe. But you get the point. Source: Google Search]

Canoes were always a part of my boyhood. Our family was definitely zero-octane. It’s all very logical given the fact that our property at 420 Front St., Owego, NY, my childhood home, happened to have the Susquehanna River in our backyard. And, we used the river often. My memories and adventures on those waters often give me solace when I leaf through my Book of Youth. One of our favorite afternoon activities was to collect a few empty mayonnaise jars, a few empty bottles of Coke and perhaps even a tomato sauce jar, put them in the canoe and head up-river toward Hiawatha Island. We were armed with our trusty Daisy BB guns. After our paddle to the island we would slowly make our way back home. We’d toss the bottles into the river and shoot at them until they shattered and sank to the silty river bottom. The shattered glass is still there sixty-some years later. This lasted until my brother Dan, bought a pellet gun that would blow the jars and bottles to shards with one shot. Who would want to compete with that?

None of this would have happened if my older brother, Chris didn’t obtain and restore a large Old Town canoe. Most average canoes are 16′ long. This was a 19′ long craft. It reminded me of an Indian war canoe or something you’d find at a YMCA summer camp in the Catskills. Somewhere in my photo boxes I have a picture of Chris working on the bow of his canoe. I cannot find this photo so the downloaded featured picture is the best I could find. You get the idea.

I recall an afternoon paddle. It was getting late and I was a tired boy. The boat was large enough for me to lie down with my head beneath the bow seat. There was a tarp. I pulled it over my head and put my ear to the floor board. I listened to the faint flow and gurgle of the water that was an inch from my cheek. I thought of the broken bottles sitting in the mud below me. The BB itself would be long gone in the future. Not so with the glass.

I lifted the tarp and saw the dark outlines of Cemetery Hill and the trees along the river bank. I knew we were close to home.

As we paddled slowly toward our property I thought of the river. I was aware of my geography so that if we left all things alone, we’d drift downstream for days into the mighty Chesapeake Bay…beyond that…the Atlantic Ocean. All the history and importance of the Susquehanna watershed began at the mouth of a moderate sized lake in central New York State, Otsego Lake in Cooperstown.

But we didn’t get to the Bay. We got home in the dark and I was left with only a memory of my evening on the floor of a large canoe.

So, on a recent trip to Owego I went over to the Hickories Park. None of the stores, hotels or the Hiawatha Bridge existed back in the day of that trip. I stand and look out over the choppy waters and think of the glass shards still resting on the river bottom. A great deal of water has flowed past the Hickories where I stood.

It’s all a memory now. Once the water passes me it’s off to the great ocean. It’s a little like life. It flows past and to really understand it and love it, one has to lie still and listen to the sound of flowing water.

A Gathering: A Farewell

The time for tears has come and gone.

You passed from our lives a year ago. It’s sad Nance, that you won’t see your son on a hilltop be married to an amazing woman, Kristin. They moved back to Binghamton, the virus, and other events delayed a final gathering in your name until this day, May 15th.

But here are many of your friends and relatives, each carrying a Nancy story in their hearts, coming together to celebrate your life. You certainly made a mark. Your memory book is filling up. We made a mark together as well. We created a boy named Brian. As awesome a child as can be. He was our gift to the world.

He and Kristin will begin a new cycle on an autumn day in the finger lakes, hopefully under a sky that will be cloudless.

Clouds will come later…they always do. But the love between Brian and Kristin will keep those clouds at bay.

Today is your day Nancy. Enjoy the multitude of friends and family that fill this room. And then… Let It Be.

Reunion

[Source: Egan Family Archives.]

I’m working on my family tree using Ancestry.com. As my son has said: “It’s addictive.”

When my father passed away in 2004, there were boxes of old photographs. Many. of course, were unlabeled. My father would dig this photo out of wherever he stored it and name almost 75% of those in the picture. If you haven’t found him yet, my father (aged 12) is the third boy from the left, bottom row. My grandparents are the last couple on the right, back row.

The rest of those sitting or standing at an unknown farm in Orange, PA. are strangers to me, yet connected to me by blood or marriage.

How I wish I was there that day sitting among four (my best guess) generations of Egans, Hotchko’s and Berlews. I would pepper the old timers with question about a world I would never know. (A word of advice: always label any and all old photos.)

Yes, it’s sad to say that it’s likely that all those in the photograph are gone from us. But each had a story about themselves…each had a memory of someone else in the picture.

And each grain of memory has, through some mystery…filtered through time to make me who I am.

Too Old, Too Soon: Two Friends

“I want to go for a ride,” said the car that had a teal fender.

“You can’t. You’re a mess. Your engine hasn’t run since the early sixties. A car also needs four wheels and you need three. Your ride isn’t going my friend. This is going to be where you will stay until someone buys you for parts. I hate to be blunt, my friend, but you need to get used to it. But don’t fret. I sort of always wanted to spend time with you,” said his friend.

“I used to run with the big boys back in the day. I could hit 48 mph on a good day. My vinyl seats matched the skirt of any pretty young thing that was brave enough to go out with the guy that owned me. He kept my hood polished and my engine tuned. Boy I was really something back in the day,” said the once black car. By the way, what color were you?”

“Me? I can’t remember those things. I’ve been a sort of rust/brown since the Eisenhower administration. Besides, color doesn’t’ matter. I know so don’t yell at me. You’re going to say that with cars color does matter.”

“I don’t like it here, next to a nearly shuttered Sunoco station in some town that has seven houses,” said Old Blue.

“You have to live with it, ole buddy. The fast times are long gone. You can’t do the things you once were so good at doing. You’re invisible now. No body sees you…I mean the real you. All they see is an old thing. But rest assured, that’s not how I see you.”

“I remember the day when my then owner, Sam, had me painted blue. I was the only blue car around town. All the rest were black. The girls giggled and nodded when Sam asked them if they wanted to ride around the block once or twice. And, boy they giggled when Sam parked me behind the Grandstand at the old Fair Grounds. They nearly wore my springs out. He’s the one who painted me blue.

“I remember when you drove up to the rest of us in your new blue coat of paint. I knew an old song that I changed some words for you. I’d sing it when you’d drive away from me.

I had a car and I called him Blue.

Betcha five dollars he’s a good car too.

“I want to go home. Maybe that traveling salesman who first bought me has a place for me. Perhaps the kid who was just back from the war and used to have me race other cars out on Old Farm-to-Market Road. You remember. He got real sick and had to sell me. He died too. No. He can’t have a place for me. I’ll bet that lovely blonde who owned me in the late 1960’s. She’ll be an old lady by now, just like me. She’ll have a place. And don’t forget that teacher who fixed me up real good in 1992. He had a nice home. He’ll take me.”

“None of that is going to happen, Blue.”

“You can’t go home again no matter where you can find a home. Just settle in right here…next to me and once the last bolt of yours has been sold, or thrown away…it all won’t matter anymore.”

“I beg to differ. All of the people who owned me and are still around have wonderful memories of me. They talk about me and the things we all enjoyed. The stories about me will live on and in that way, so will I.”

“Okay Blue, if you say so. Meanwhile, stay close to me when the night comes. I’m kinda afraid of the dark. But stay near.

I need you.”

The Toboggan

It’s not really a wedding gift…it’s a gift for the future beyond that.

[In the garage]

When I was growing up in Owego, NY we had a garage that my father built using spare lumber he had accumulated since the late 1940’s. I cannot locate a proper photograph because I, more than likely, never took one. The whole structure leaned at a dangerous angle. It was never painted but it had many uses, mostly storing old oil cans, ladders, a canoe or two and a lawnmower. If you stood half-way along our driveway one could see a snarl of yellow plastic rope handing from the rafters. This was our toboggan. We rarely used it because we lacked proper slopes. You would have to drive to the IBM Country Club and find joy and thrills on the snow-covered golf course. I only took my girlfriend out for a few runs. Other than that, the toboggan waited patiently in the rafter of the old garage. My father probably acquired the sled sometime in the 1940’s.

I grew up and went to college, forgetting the old toboggan. It lay upside-down, above our ever changing cars. As my dad aged, he urged his four sons to begin claiming and cleaning the objects of our childhood. I spoke up and said I wanted the toboggan so it was handed down to me. Only in the 1970’s did I actually remove the sled from it’s resting place and took it to Pennsylvania. There it got well-used, fulfilling its function, when I took my young daughter, Erin for many pulls.

I relocated to Connecticut. I was getting older and Erin was getting heavier. The toboggan went back to it’s little home on the rafter of the garage at 420 Front St. in Owego. There it waited out many winters and watched the snow come and go.

Now, I am a father again. I have a son in his mid thirties. On October 9, 2021 he will be marrying the woman he loves. Perhaps they will choose to raise a family…perhaps not. But I could think of no better gift than to restore the old toboggan. That way, regardless of whether they have a family or not, they will get a lovingly new old toboggan to hang on their wall or hang from the rafter of a garage.

During the restoring process, I found myself challenged by a knot in the old plastic rope. It was so well tied, I needed scissors to cut the rope.

[Clipping the old knot]

In a way it was like cutting old ties to objects of my youth. The snip that broke the knot broke something in my heart.

[All done]
[Appropriate Title]

Split Personalities

[Source: Instagram Search.]

Don’t worry, this is not going to be a symposium on Multiple Personalities or a detailed peer-reviewed paper on Schizophrenia.

Maybe it will.

Many of you know that after I retired, I chose several ways to keep my sanity and be assured that boredom didn’t become an aspect of my life. I tried Literacy Volunteers and teaching the incarcerated. Both were quite satisfying but getting myself to a library or prison in the middle of a typical North Country winter was a challenge you don’t want to even contemplate.

I tried guitar lessons, watercolor, banjo and recently purchased a fine concert ukulele complete with a one-hundred song book that uses only 3 chords: CF-and G. None of this matters, of course. I comprehend nothing at all about music. So, it’s merely a way to hang up cool looking instruments and talk about them.

My seven-year-old grandson, Elias can even play Wild Horses, in his own sweet way.

I always had a desire to write so I began by blogging. I have no theme or special topic so I write whatever interests me. The topics are serious, funny, satiric but usually profound in some small way.

I tend to be nostalgic in my choice of subjects as I grow older. So many memories to recall. Recently, I posted my five-hundredth blog. It’s hard work to keep coming up with original and thoughtful ideas.

It’s the same with writing (a large leap for a blogger.) I always felt the need to be a writer. (I ended up spending over thirty years as a science teacher.) I’m no Stephen King but I have my own style. Y/A horror and the supernatural seems to be the genre I’ve fallen into, for now.

All this sets up a serious problem. For the better part of a day, I’m a twelve-year-old boy. The rest of the time, I’m Boris Karloff.

So, who am I really? I try to amuse and I try to frighten with only a few hours to be the real me. Sometimes, the wires get switched

Being a clown at times conflicts with creating profound sadness.

I don a mask and moments later I cover my face with tragedy.

My parents would have been better off naming me JANUS.

[Source: Instagram Search]

For Pete’s Sake

[Lenny Schmidt (L) & Peter Gillette on the ‘Going to Gramma’s House’. A 73- mile bike trip from Owego, NY to Lake Winola, PA. Circa 1960]

How many kids, in the innocent ’50’s can say they were lucky enough to have a river in their backyard? Not many would be my guess. And it didn’t hurt that the Gillette family owned Hiawatha Island, one of the most famous and historic tracts of land in New York State.

I was a patient of Dr. Tracey Gillette on several occasions.  Our regular family doctor at the time was Dr. Philip Nichols. If Dr. Nichols was busy, Dr. Gillette would almost always take me.  After all, that’s what small town doctors did in those carefree days. And it certainly hurt that Dr. Gillette’s only son was one of my best friends.

Pete and I became the best of friends.

If not for him, we would never have had the numerous island adventures that enlivened our teenage years.  

. . .

If not for him, we would never have produced, directed and acted in at least four eight mm home-made monster movies. [While we played at film making, a guy our age named Spielberg was doing the same thing in California.]

. . .

If not for him, Greg Stella, Chuck Carter, Pete and myself would never have found a cozy nook hidden behind the shelving in the school library. Behind those shelves we discussed philosophy, religion, fools and kings. [All with the librarian’s knowledge and permission. Making trouble was not on our minds.]

. . .

Pete missed several months of eighth grade at St. Patrick’s School in Owego, NY. The entire class knew that his father had terminal cancer. Tracy Gillette’s final months were spent taking his wife, 6 daughters and one boy on a tour of America

We all suspected that Pete would follow in his father’s footsteps…take up medicine. Lord knows he had the brains for it. But instead he ended up in the construction business as a laborer. He suffered a back injury which ultimately contributed to his death, passing on September 2nd.

I cannot walk down Front Street, even today, over 60 years since I last spoke to him, without a million memories filling my brain. People tend to keep memories alive. I intend to do this

for Pete’s sake.

 

 

A Young Boy’s Walk

[Source: Google Search.]

My first eight years of formal education was at St. Patrick’s School in Owego, NY. Many former students of many Catholic schools will complain about horrid nuns with rulers and black straps. I had no such issues with the Sisters of Mercy who ran our school. Most knew our parents personally. I can’t blame the good Sisters for the lapses in my education (I don’t know the difference between a gerund and a participle). And it’s ultimate irony that someone who had virtually no science classes ended up being a teacher…a science teacher!

But I digress.

My forth grade teacher, Sister M., liked to take walks. Owego was ideal for school children to walk. The streets are mostly set on a grid sistem. Out the school, keep making lefts when you come to a corner and before you can say Susquehanna, you’re back at the school.

[Source: Google Search.]

Sister M.loved the autumn and there’s nothing like that season in Owego. The sidewalks fill with leaves and all is right with the world. She had the patience of a saint, so on the most perfect days of fall, we would go, as a class, on our ‘science’ walk. East on Main Street and a right on Ross. We’re at the corner of Ross and Front, ready to make the right back to school. I can glimpse my house. I wondered what my mother was doing. Which room she was cleaning or which fall flower she was picking. Our class did this walk, every year, with the particular nun who taught us. The ‘science’ part took place when we got back to school. In the back of the building was an unused room…our ‘lab’. There, using a hot plate and an old used pan, we would choose our favorite leaf picked up on the walk, and  each pupil would carefully dip their leaf into the melted paraffin. The nun stood close by always thinking about the possible and the much dreaded phone call:

“What?! My daughter got scolded with hot, molten wax? It’s true. It’s true that you nuns torture our kids.”

On our forth grade walk, something odd happened to me. At the end of a two-block leaf walk, I had changed. I always enjoyed finding a colorful maple or oak, but on that ideal day, a day with a deep blue sky, the smell of leaves, the hint of crispness in the air and Halloween a week or two away…I saw the true colors shining through. The sky became a deeper blue and the thousands of leaves took on a brilliance I had never seen before. (This same experience happened years later when I was a freshman in high school. I recall lying on the grass in our backyard and staring at a budding spring flower. I never saw a flower the same since. My senses had made a quantum leap into a higher level of insight).

I looked up at Sister M. She had a slight smile on her nearly hidden face. I looked around at my classmates. Did they experience what had felt that moment? I believe for them each moment came at a different time. I had my moment. On their way to adulthood, they all would have their moment. I glanced again and my friends, this time i noticed a young petit girl with dark hair cut in a pixie style.

I began to notice many different things that day. It was a walk I will never forget.

NOTE: All the leaves are still green here in the North Country. But, seasons change fast and so here is my autumn blog.]