Words From A Footpath: The Excursionist X

[Older footpath signs]

It must be my age.  It could be my imagination.  It certainly is something I don’t fully understand.  But, the truth is I think that the English Public Footpaths sometimes call my name.

There is a legend among the Northwest Indigenous People that when you hear an owl call your name…you will soon pass on into the next world (read death).  I think that when I pass a Public Footpath sign, a similar thing happens, except that instead of passing on…I will be walking.

That is one of the charms about Britain.  Public footpaths are literally everywhere.  You can walk across yards, fields, etc…the public have rights here that don’t exist in the USA.

I’ve blogged about such things in the past, but, hey, get a good subject and you can blog it from here to Friday.

[Newer sign posts]

Sometimes I have a guide-book to help me locate interesting routes.  And, at other times, I just wing it and strike off, hoping to find the next marker, hoping to not get off on a wrong path.  But, are any paths really wrong?  Following my instinct I find such places like this:

[On a Dorset walk a few years ago]

Or this:

[A walk in Yorkshire last year]

There are a few rules a walker must obey.  It’s all common sense:

–Keep your dog on a lead

–Close the gates behind you

–Don’t litter

And, to help you through one field to the next, there are a variety of stiles.

[A wooden step stile]

[An old over-the-wall step stile]

[A kissing gate. You can figure it out]

So, what’s the big deal?  Well, for me, this little portion of England is a walker’s paradise.  And sometimes that all I need.

Many times, it’s what I really need.

[All photos are mine. Some have been used in other posts or on Instagram. But, hey, if you follow me you already know that]

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The Fly Over: The Excursionist V

[Photo of a page of the Guardian newspaper]

I like fly overs.  The jets roar over a stadium during halftime…or more interestingly, the  Italian Air Force planes that swept over the church in Italy the moment when Pavarotti’s coffin was brought out of the church.  But deep down in my conscience, I see fly overs as a glorification of the military and by extension, a glorification of war.

So while they’re sometimes thrilling…they often send a message that I do not agree with.

Then I ran across a short article in a British newspaper yesterday.  After reading it, I felt quite moved…very moved.

The old fellow you see in the photo is eighty-two.  His name is Tony Foulds.  In 1944, he was eight years old.  He and his mates were playing in a park.  A B-17 Flying Fortress was having problems.  They needed a place to crash-land.  The pilot, an American along with nine other Yanks aboard, intended to land in the field.  The pilot spotted the children running around the field.  He purposely avoided the playing area and ended up crashing into the trees nearby. All ten Americans on the plane were killed.

Tony watched in horror.  And this horror is still with him today.  Years after the tragedy, the county council erected a memorial stone.

Every year since then, Tony has tended the memorial…planting flowers…and remembering.

A few days ago, a combined UK and US teams of pilots did a fly over.

Tony will be there.  Tony will probably cry.  Tony somehow feels responsible for the ten deaths.

He was just playing a game with his mates.

Fate is…it just is.  Isn’t it?

The Holiday Card

[What follows is pure fiction. It is a short story that I hope you will enjoy. It’s not funny, but it’s what I wanted to write. Please don’t read anything into this post.]

It was during a brief April thaw, when a chance breeze blew the snow and a few minutes of sunlight melted the white crystals.  That was the moment I saw it.  I picked it up and slapped it against my thigh.  I could read my name on the envelope. I could read the return address in the upper left corner.

It was too late.  Things would never be the same now…never.

It’s a fairly well-known fact that men do not bond easily with each other.  We have trouble sharing.  True friends are hard to find and keep when you pass your fifties.  Friendships that last into ones seventies are indeed rare.  The thread that holds these long relationships are usually rooted in childhood.  If you’re lucky, one or two childhood buddies will grow old with you.  Such was the case of the one-time friend whose holiday card I held in my right hand.

We met in elementary school.  Played in each others back yards.  Entered into adolescence together.  In high school we traded secrets about girls…those mysterious beings that we thought constantly about.  We talked about first kisses and puzzled over the best way to find and unlock those strange bra hooks.

We had our first legal beers together.  We played high school sports together.  We went on camping trips together.

We were the best of friends.  As the years passed, other playmates drifted into different social circles.  But we stayed close.  We celebrated our jobs, listened to the same music and showered affection on each others children.

My friend and I went through divorces, sat in empty bars, looked at younger women and talked to each other and into our pints of beer.

When our retirements approached, things began to change.  He called less.  I emailed less.  Our visits to each others homes became more and more infrequent.

We were growing apart, something that seemed to me to be the opposite of what life would be like after retirement.  The phone calls went unanswered and the postcards stopped arriving.

In the late fall, I became quite annoyed by being ignored.  I unfriended him on Facebook.  I deleted his email address.  I stopped making meaningless phone calls.

I decided to put the issue to a test.  I sent him a holiday card.  If he sent one back, then I knew something of our friendship would survive.  If I got nothing, I knew that for some reason, he did not want to be a part of my life.

So, I waited.

A few holiday cards arrived but never did much to fill our mailbox.  Facebook and email greetings were slowly out pacing the USPS.

On Christmas Eve, I picked up the mail.  I placed the few cards on our bed.  There was nothing from him.  I knew then that our life-long friendship had come to a slow and sad end.  It would be a lie to say that I did not weep a little over a friendship that had lasted for over sixty years.  Men do have emotions.

* * *

It was in early March that I found myself browsing the internet.  I came to a Facebook page devoted to people in our class who had passed away.

I felt the blood drain from my face and I went numb when I read that my friend had died of a massive coronary a week earlier.

Then came the April thaw.  I had pulled the envelope from the snow and placed it on the top of our mica lamp to dry out.  When I felt it time, I sliced it open.  It was a holiday card from my friend…apologizing for not returning my calls.  I knew then that the card arrived before Christmas, but as I struggled to get out of my car, trying to avoid the unplowed snow, the card had slipped from the rest of the mail.  That afternoon, the snow-covered card was concealed…until April.

“Let’s meet up in the summer and take a hike,” he had written.

So, now I feel I know the real essence of loneliness.  I have no true male friends up here in the North Country.  My wife has always been and still is my best friend…but I don’t have a buddy.  A guy to shoot a game of pool with at the local Irish Pub, a friend to bounce writing ideas off,  a pal to sit on our deck (or his) and sip a cold beer.  We wouldn’t even have to say anything.  After all, its common knowledge that men don’t bond easily.  We have trouble sharing our personal thoughts orally, but we know each other’s minds.  Or so I thought.

But what men can do is sit, side by side, just sharing a beer and assuming we know what the other is thinking.

There is a large blank space in my life now.  My wife has to be two people.  The woman I married over twenty-five years ago and a mate that I have been close to for six decades.  It’s going to be a big job for her, but she’s more than up to the task.  The presence of my wife makes these things more tolerable but not less painful.

Me?  I can stare at our campfire and remember details of the adventures with my friend.  I can watch the ripples on the lake and remember my friend.  I can look to the far range of the High Peaks and remember the trails, snow-covered, rain-soaked and sweltering in the August heat…that I hiked with my friend.

Or, on a cold night like this, when the temperature outside is in single digits, our fire-place is crackling and warming our house and my wife is reading quietly beside me on her Kindle, I can sit mutely staring at the flames, throw on another log, watch the flames leap even higher.  I am thinking of the holiday card.  As the flames rise to the top of the wood stove, the loneliness for this old guy gets deeper.

[Photo is mine]

My Son’s Beard

 

I saw him being born. Later on, I saw peach fuzz on his adolescent chin.

A few years later, when he moved in with us, in New York City, I think he borrowed my razor.

Yesterday, I stood next to him at The Beacon Bar. I sipped a beer, he had something I never heard of.

I was close to him, as I always like to be. He’s a big guy and he’s 31 years old ( Oh, God, how time flies !)

I studied his face, thinking how much I love him. Then I saw them!

I  Counted three. My boy had three gray whiskers on his cheek !

I don’t know what his thoughts were, but I felt ten years older.  Some would say “that’s life”. That’s not what my words would be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Lauren Bacall Heard Me Cough

[Photo source: IMDb]

I lived for almost thirty years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It’s an artsy neighborhood. And it’s not uncommon to cross paths with famous people, most often actors. My wife was in the Blockbuster Video store, in line behind Michael J. Fox.

“I think your next,” he said to Mariam.

“And I think you’re great,” she said to him.

She stood in line at Fairway on Broadway behind Francis McDormond.

“I love your work,” Mariam said.

“Thank you,” replied the Oscar-winning actor.

I had a moment of greatness too. I went into our neighborhood Mexican restaurant…Gabriella’s. I calmly walked passed a chubby guy sitting at one of our favorite outside tables…with his family. He had cut off denim shorts, a thin wife and a hefty kid or two.

It was James Gandolfini. Tony Soprano was sitting at my table. I didn’t raise a fuss. I’ve been to Jersey City. I knew the deal. First come, first serve.

That was life in New York City!

Let’s go back in time. It’s 1984. I’m an exchange teacher in Dorset, England. I befriended a young woman when I signed up for a screen-printing and etching course at the Poole Arts Center. I made sure I sat near her. She was pretty and a very good artist…and a gourmet cook.  I still have one of her etchings on my wall. She was a mid-wife, a surf-boarder and a sweet attractive woman. We became friends. We went out for eats and a pint or two after class. She promised me she’d teach me how to wind-surf in Poole harbor. We never got to do it.

But one thing we did get to do was see a play.

I had tickets to the Salisbury Playhouse production of Sweet Bird of Youth.  I asked her if she would like to go. Yes, she said.

[This is the movie with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. Photo is mine.]

“How about dinner?”, I asked.

“I’m a good cook what do you think you would like?”, she said. I made a joke. “Oh. Shrimp Scampi and some caviar.”

She picked me up in her MG (mounted with a wind-surfer board rack). She had a picnic basket. I peaked inside. There was shrimp scampi, caviar and a bottle of white wine. We spread a blanket on the lawn in front of the main entrance of Salisbury Cathedral. The air was crisp. The food was awesome. The view was breathtaking.

We finished and made our way to our seats at the Playhouse. The lights went down. Sweet Bird of Youth began. Lauren Bacall was playing aging actress. I don’t recall the leading man.

That’s when Lauren and I connected.

There was a scene where she was lounging on a bed, waiting for her lover. The theater was stone quiet. The silence was intense. But the need in my throat couldn’t linger. I needed to cough.

I coughed.

She didn’t look into the audience like they do now days when a cell phone goes off. But, I knew she HAD to have heard me cough. There was no other sound. Only me.

Years later, I flipped through her autobiography in a narrow aisle at a Barnes & Noble. I found no reference to me, the cough, the disruption, or the shrimp scampi. I wonder how long my cough stayed with her.

I have a feeling that I was no match for Bogie.

“You know how to cough, don’t you? You just lower your head and make a gasping sound.”

The Birch Tree Clock: An Update

After I posted the blog about a clock that my father made from a birch tree in our backyard in Owego, NY., I got some responses.

Several people said that it would be a tribute to my father to restore the clock. Refurbish it. Make it come alive again. So, I did it. A friend, straightened out the hands. I found a AA battery. In a few minutes it was silently ticking away the time.

I put the clock on the top shelf of my Adirondack/Mountaineering bookcase.

It’s there for a good reason. On the shelf below are my pitons, carabiners and climbing slings. I was once a fair rock climber. Now these items only remind me of who I once was. I can’t climb 5.4 rated climbs in the “Gunks” anymore. I put the clock in a corner. You will notice that there are no numerals to mark the hours. I thought of going to Michael’s craft store in Plattsburgh (I won’t go to a Hobby Lobby because of their discrimination policy) and buying small foil numerals for the clock.

I decided that I wanted the clock to be free of numbers. I have a fairly good sense of how a clock is set up. I don’t need reference points to mark the passage of time.

I can sit on the sofa and look at my rock-climbing paraphernalia and remember my life when I was in my thirties. I was fit and I was strong and I was fearless. Now, I look up at the clock with moving hands but no numerals. Do I care if it’s 5:15 or 6:15?

Not really. Time is relative. My memories are flood waters in my mind. I think about the past more than most people and probably more than I should.

But, when I look up at the clock that ticks silently and without the hours marked…I don’t feel that time is ticking away in my life.

It’s just a piece of wood, full of memories, full of my father’s love for his sons and now, a new-found love for my dad, who took time to put the timepiece together.

When I look at it, I don’t wonder what time it is.

It is what it is.

Sleep And The Birch Tree Clock

[Our Limelight Hydrangea.]

I look at the clock. It’s 4:35 am. I can’t sleep.

I begin another chapter in the book I’m reading. I go into the kitchen and eat a cracker. I sip some Tonic Water (it helps my leg cramps). I go back to bed. I can’t sleep. I take a little pill. Sleep isn’t coming to me tonight.

Sleep evades me almost every night. It’s been that way since I was a child. “What do you think your missing?” my mother would say. I had no answer.

I look out of our bedroom window and see our Limelight Hydrangea plant. In the pre-dawn light, it looks unearthly bright…like I left the car lights on. Or that small moons have dipped into our front yard. Or is it possible that I had indeed fallen asleep, slept through the rest of the summer…through fall and now I’m waking up to a new and substantial snowfall?

It’s dawn now and I still can’t sleep. Then I remember something. Two days ago, Mariam got me to open the door to the attic. Not so easy in this house. She wanted to do some gleaning of our stuff. We are trying to “de-thing” ourselves. She said she found a box of NYC books. I told her I didn’t want to go through those books right now. Who knows, we may move back to the City in the not-so-distant future. I might want those books then.

When she got back down from the pull-down ladder, she said there was plenty of my “stuff” up there in boxes.

I asked her what she saw. She said there was the tree clock. I asked her to repeat. She said: “You know, the clock that your father made from the tree”.

I’m still awake and now thinking about the clock that my father made…for me.

I grew up in Owego, New York. We were blessed with a large back-yard. There were enormous evergreen trees just beyond the lawn where my swing set was located. In between those two tall coniferous trees was a small Birch. Its trunk was only a few inches in diameter. One day, my father rounded up his four sons. He had us sit in front of the Birch tree. I’m on the right and look impish. Is that a sling-shot in my back pocket?

[The first of four Birch Tree photos. Early 1950’s]

Over the years, my brothers and I recreated our positions in front of the growing Birch. We were all growing up. The final posed photograph was taken on a lovely spring day in 1992. We were holding a wake for my mother who had passed away on Easter Sunday morning.

[The 1992 photo is the last one.]

Soon after that, the Birch caught a tree infection. It died. My father was left with no choice. It had to be chain-sawed down. I was in Owego that weekend. I asked him for a small section of the tree. He cut it down. He cut it up into sections. I wonder how he felt when he touched the chainsaw to the tree. It must have broken his heart. It breaks mine just contemplating it. He loved his sons so very much. Did he cry? He never would have shown it. But I would have been in tears hoping that my watery eyes could still keep the saw on track. I left for my own home without the tree section.

Six months later, my father presented me with the piece of the tree.  He had cut open one side and inserted a clock mechanism. On the other side, he attached the hands of a clock. He glued the hour numbers and attached a hook.

Since then I’ve moved many times. The clock always came with me, but over time, the numerals fell off.

That afternoon, after my sleepless night, I retrieved the clock from the attic.

I wondered what thoughts my father had when he cut the tree into pieces. So many decades have passed since he had his four boys take up a pose in front of the tree. I hold the clock in my hands. It’s all I have left of those four photo sessions. I run my fingers over the varnished clock face. I count the rings and calculate the ring that grew the year of the first photo.

Two of my brothers are gone now, as is my father.

I hold the Birch Clock in my hands.

These memories make me sad. I pray that I will sleep a dreamless sleep tonight.