May Day, 2017: Take the Long Way Home

[Photo source: Me]

So, here I am looking at the new page of my really cool calendar.  It’s May.  Most people will think of flowers and perhaps rising waters.  I used to think of crocus.  That’s when my mother always said spring was here.

“The crocus are up beneath the evergreens,” she would say….for so many years….until she passed away on a beautiful Easter Sunday morning.

It’s also my 24th wedding anniversary.

But, I look toward the end of the May calendar and I see the last date: 31. That’s when I will turn 70 years old!  I try to get my mind around that fact, but I realize that I’m not ready.  I’m not ready to be or feel that old. Where did the decades go?  Who was I as 36?  47?  Who took the pictures?  Am I in anyone’s album?

I know what many will say: “You’re as old as you feel, etc…”  But that’s not the way I see it or feel it.
I have a delightful daughter,Erin, whose life is full with a fantastic husband and an awesome son, Elias.  She is turning 45 years old.  Where did the years go?

I have a son, Brian, who will turn thirty in mid-July.  Where did the years go?

See the calendar photo above? Did I ever pull back the curtain for anyone? I don’t think I did.  I spent a career teaching…but did I make any difference? I’ll never know.

There is a vase of lilacs just behind this laptop screen.  Mariam bought them today.  I can smell that special scent.  It reminds me of the giant lilac bush that grew just behind my childhood home.  So many memories from a fragrance…

I sometimes feel like I’m 18 again when I think of past girlfriends.  Many probably forgot my name over the years.  But, I know that all the young women I meet see me as their grandfather.  That is not good for the male ego of any age.

Thank the stars that I met a woman who is older than me, looks younger than me and has more energy than me and is a hell of a lot smarter than me.

Mariam.  You took a chance on me…like the ABBA song.

I just wish I had some creative energy…to write more and make her and my children proud of me.

I guess that’s what life is all about…finding a partner who shares the same values.

I did.

But, that doesn’t make me fear my turning 70 any easier.

[Me?]

[Illustration: Journey of Life: Constable]

 

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

snowroad

Sure, I could be walking down this snowy, quiet and picturesque road.  I could be thinking about the approaching holidays, the snow men, the fire in our downstairs living room wood burner…but I don’t imagine I’ll be making this walk.  Don’t get me wrong, I love snow.  I always have.  But as I stand in the middle of this road to take the photo, I can feel my lower back aching from the shoveling I already did twice today.  And now my left knee hurts.  What’s that all about?

It’s Monday afternoon.  On Saturday afternoon, I was on our roof in a tee-shirt and a leaf-blower and a pair of ear protectors (they look like high-end Bose earphones).  I couldn’t hear a thing.  The only way I knew the blower was ON was to watch the twigs, pine needles and wet leaves fly away…away to the back deck and the front porch.  This would require another half-hour of leaf blowing.  I stood on the roof like the Colossus of Rhodes…like Paul Bunyan.  I looked down at my wife whose job it was to help keep the extension cords from kinking up.  She was saying something to me.  I couldn’t hear a thing.  She could have been saying “the house is on fire and I just called 911” or she could be saying “I need to go to the bathroom”.

That was just this past Saturday. On Sunday, it began to snow.  It’s 5:30 pm on Monday as I write this and it’s still snowing.

That’s a quick transition from late fall cleaning to mid-winter torture.

Take a look at the next two photos.  The top one was taken an hour or so ago.  The next one was taken a year ago almost to the day (give or take a week or so).  Which photo shows a happy contented 69-year-old guy?  Which one depicts a senior citizen who is cursing the weather gods and feeling his lower back going south?

snow-shoveling

sailing

Trust me.  Both photos are of the same man.

No, I don’t think I’ll take a walk in a winter wonderland.  Instead, I’ll pour a glass of Cabernet and watch the darkness descend on the view toward the lake.  I’ll think of how quick things change.  How you’re young one minute and lost in late middle age the next.  How your friends are laughing and loving and talking and dancing one minute…and then their heart stops the next.  I’m not being morose here…I’m still grieving my childhood buddy, Jimmy Merrill, who passed away last Thursday.

Old friends, old loves…and memories.  I’m Irish so I tend to dwell on these things.

A little dose of melancholy falls into everyone’s lives.  It’s not a bad thing.  I just have to keep my eye on the future and the fact that there will be a day when the snow will melt and the crocus and the Lady Slippers will grow beneath the ferns and color will return to the world.  It’s so monochromatic right now.  But, that’s to be expected.

Another month must pass before the days begin to get longer.

dore

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

 

Where Are The Castles In The Sky?

ADKclouds

When I was a young boy, my mother would walk with me down through our backyard and toward the river.  There was a decline on the property that, in very old times, was the bank of our river.  Now, it was simply a gentle slope down to a lawn that took my father decades to transform from a field of weeds to grass…that had to be mowed, of course.  I often wished he’d left that part of the yard alone and allowed it to grow into a forest of wildflowers and small birches.

My mother would usually stop and sit on the highest part of the slope and lay back…looking at the sky.  She pointed to the cumulus clouds that were usually present in the afternoon above Owego.

“Look,” she’d say.  “See that cloud?  It’s shaped like a whale.”

I’d look and wonder.  Then I began to see the shape she was still pointing to.

“Yes, mommy, I see the whale,” I said and I did indeed see the hump and the tail.

“The clouds can take on all sorts of shapes if you let your mind free to imagine.  Right now I see a ship…a ship that will one day come in for me,” she said wistfully.

I think this is what she said.  I don’t remember exactly because I was too young to remember her words.  But, from that day on, I used to keep my eyes aimed at the clouds and I began to see that what one minute was an amorphous shape, become a dragon, or a knight, or a horse…or an angel.

I did this through my teenage years when I would stretch back in the same place where my mother and I would sit and sit and think and begin to see the shape of castles and eagles and great ships and more knights.

In the late 1970’s, I would take my daughter, Erin, down to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“What do you see?” I asked Erin.

She stared at the sky for a time and then said she thought one looked like a mountain…a volcano…with the sun edging over the peak.

“It’s a beautiful mountain,” she said.  “Daddy, do you see it?”

“I don’t see it now,” I said, “but maybe someday.  That cloud is only yours to imagine.”

Years later, I took my son, Brian, to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“Daddy!” he said as soon as he looked up.  “I see a big building, a skyscraper like the one you showed me in a book.  It looks like the Empire State Building,” he said.  ” Do you think I’ll ever see it in real life?” he asked.

“Maybe someday,” was all I could say.

Many years later, I would  manage to look up…the trees were thinning out now…and find objects and shapes in the clouds while I mowed the lawn my father had created.  My children are both adults now.  I saw only shadows of happiness in the faces of the dragons and knights.  The castles I saw were dark and menacing.

Even later, after a heartbreaking divorce, I still continued to look up to the clouds and try to find fanciful and dreamy and mythical shapes.  I only saw only puffs of water vapor…simply clouds.

After my father passed away, I continued to mow the lawn and look up.  I saw only dark clouds and vague images of those I loved who had passed on.

I took one last walk to the river the day I handed the keys to 420 Front Street to a woman named Lauren.  It was overcast and nothing distinct appeared in the sky.  A vague shape of an hour-glass formed in the lower clouds that were building over the southern hills.

A year or two ago, I took the walk…perhaps for the last time…to the bank of the river.  I was with my wife.  The house had been empty for a few years and the lawn had suffered through two devastating floods.  When I had mowed it, it look like the 17th hold of Augusta National Golf Course.  This day, it was shoddy and overgrown and almost unrecognizable.  But, this time I saw visions of King Arthur, Roy Rogers and cowboys and indians and brave soldiers and angels that seemed to smile on me once again.

Mariam and I sat and looked at the sky.  She told me that when she was a child, she would lay back and make images of the cloud shapes.  I asked her what she remembered.

“I recall the image of an old man…with a crooked nose and a cane,” she said.

“Maybe someday,” I said.

Walking back to the house, I looked at my wife.  Then I looked at the very spot my mother would make me sit.

“Yes, mom,” I said.  I see it all.”

cloud2b:w

Roadside Attractions From The Rearview Mirror

compassRose

I feel like I’ve driven half-way around the earth’s diameter.  Actually, according to the odometer on the red Ford Escape, we did indeed travel that far.

Our total distance driven, including side trips for sight-seeing, came to an astounding 13,589 miles!  If you’re into engine care and maintenance, that’s would be three oil changes (and filter, of course).  And, as we pulled into our driveway, we were overdue for a fourth change.

I walked into the kitchen and saw the calendar next to our Samsung refrigerator.  Take a look:

2015Calendar

That was our departure date, October 15.  I see it was a Thursday.  I took the calendar down (I was thinking there was something superstitious about leaving old calendars on the wall.  I only see them in Auto Repair Shops and they have Betty Page photos and the dates are around 1956 and the guys that work in some of these places often have seen times of hard luck).  It took me a day to locate the 2016 calendar I bought (20% off) at a Barnes & Noble store in Texas.  The theme is Circus “Freaks”.  Changing calendar themes from Vintage England Travel Posters to The Circus Sideshow must say something about my change in tastes.  The sideshows are vanishing from America…but there will always be an England.

Unusual things and marginalized people have always fascinated me.

Don’t ask.

So, here’s the new calendar:

AprilCalendar2016

In case you can’t read the dates very well, we got home on April 1.  I was so exhausted and sore from driving that I didn’t find anyone or anything to play a prank on.

But, the Tattooed Girl will brighten that corner of the kitchen until May 1!  This brings up an interesting thought…this sideshow girl was once considered an oddity…she made her living exhibiting herself in a circus.  At least half the baristas in the Starbucks I visited had tats far more artistic, exotic and erotic than our Miss April, 2016.

Culture changes…but, as I said, there will always be an England.

So, let me run the numbers.  Using the above dates, we spent 169 days out there…somewhere out there, driving, camping, hiking or just sitting on a beach.  This come out to 40.6% of a year.  Nearly 41% of a year of my life has just been spent looking at things.

We emptied the r-pod (we’re going to sell it, but it needs a few repairs first) and I piled our guides and maps and memorabilia on the floor.  Of course, I arranged everything to look haphazard and casual, but every pamphlet and sticker and book and CD is carefully placed to give you an idea what we accomplished.  I probably should mention that I couldn’t find most of the guide books and National Park maps and tee-shirts that we purchased along the way.  They’ll show up sometime in late July.

GuidesOnfloorFromTrip

I even re-highlighted my route on our Rand McNally.  Here it is:

Atlas

I’m aware that it’s hard to see clearly, but you only need to see the orange line and the green/blue line.  The orange line was our route to Palm Desert, California.  This is where we made a turn on a highway that was surrounded by wind-mills, and began to set our course eastward.  That’s the green/blue line.

Far be it for me to brag, but I do think we took in a pretty good chunk of the lower part of the Lower 48.

If you’ve been following the many blogs I sweated and struggled to produce for your entertainment, you will know that I did accomplish quite a bit more than just fill up the memory chip in my digital camera.

I became certified in sailing (any keel boat up to 30′).  I posed with Miss Sonoran Desert Queen (and she put her arm around me willingly and eagerly…as she thought of her long deceased grandfather).  I saw my first rodeo, an American child’s dream (if you were raised in the 1950’s).  I saw the graves of dead outlaws and B & B’s that were former brothels.

I drank Tequila in a bar in Juarez, Mexico…the same bar where Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Steve McQueen drank.  I tried to feel their spiritual entities, but looking for the nooks where they sat and kissed and drank, only led me to the men’s room.  We crossed the International Bridge from El Paso.  I looked down at the line of defense our government has built to deter (read ‘keep out’) illegals.  The trenches, fences, walls and razor wire reminded me of the Berlin Wall or the Maginot Line.  I was struck by the seven inches you unknowingly step across that separates two cultures that are so close yet so far apart.  I also did this on a day when I was in constant FB messaging with my son Brian.  I pleaded with him to dig into his iTunes for Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues”, so he could, somehow in the cyber-world, be connected with me as I walked across the border bridge…and he would, at that same moment be listening to:

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime too.  And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through, don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue, they got some hungry women there, and they really make a mess outta you.”

We crossed the bridge.  Brian said he listened.  But it wasn’t raining and there’s no Rue Morgue Avenue in Juarez.  I did find a Mexican busker who sang Cielito Lindo for us, but no hungry women.  But, I’m not such a dreamer to believe that there are really no hungry women in Juarez…or hungry children…or hungry old men who sit and smoke and drink and think.

Sometimes facts get in the way of a good story.  For me, I have to immerse myself in a landscape, get my hands dirty, my mouth full of dust, get pricked by a cactus or bitten by a scorpion to fully understand where it is that I am standing. If I’m in Mississippi, I listen to Delta blues, if I’m in Texas, Bob Wills goes into the CD player.

Anytime on this trip, “Happy Trails” would be a welcome tune.

I drank a Lone Star beer at the Broken Spoke in Austin when Mariam, my friend William McHone and myself took lessons in the Texas 2-Step.  I even bought a pair of cheap cowboy boots for that night.  I didn’t do very well.  I have no sense of rhythm…only the desire to move around the dance floor to the sound of Texas Swing…and hold my honey in my arms.  I still have the boots, but I still can’t dance the Texas 2-Step.

I saw things that made me cry.

I saw acres of cattle, with no place to graze, penned and waiting to be herded to the killing rooms.  The miles I drove past these death-camps smelled of cow shit.  I wondered if it was their diet…or their fear.

I saw shanty-towns of the most squalid poverty and hopelessness.  I saw Native Americans reduced to playing “Indians” for the tourists…like me.

When we entered a National Park, I flashed my Golden Pass, which allowed us, as seniors, free entry.  I pondered the situation of an average family with four kids paying close to $100 to see the extraordinary landscapes that really belong to all of us.

I laid a flower at the grave of a prostitute in Dodge City, Kansas…a luckless young woman (somehow, I prefer the term “Soiled Dove”) who died from an infection caused by bar-room brawl over a cowboy, or was it Bat Masterson, or a banker, or a lover.

I placed another flower at the grave of an old friend of mine who died forty-some years ago.  He died and I lived.  We were hiking the same trail in the High Peaks.  I lived to return to his grave and place that Adirondack wildflower I had picked months earlier.  Now it was dried and withered from months on the road.  A flower from the mountains that were his last views of his life on this earth.

I saw an elderly man after he tripped on the curb outside a 7-Eleven.  He was bleeding.  The EMT’s were all over the situation.  But…was I seeing myself in fifteen years?

I saw a woman crying while she sat an outside table at one of the thousand Starbucks we visited.  She was alone in whatever sorrow had overcome her.  It took me days to get the image of her heartbreak out of my head.

I saw another woman crying in a bar.  She was with a male friend.  What happened?  Was she leaving him?  He leaving her?  I couldn’t tell, but the scene made me turn away.  I sat in her seat more than once in my life.

I cried one afternoon in the countryside outside of Dallas.  It didn’t have to do with the trip, directly.  I was driving to visit a large cemetery about fifteen miles southwest of the city.  I was listening to NPR and I sat up straight in the seat of the red Ford when the radio host announced that David Bowie had died.  I mulled this over for a few miles.  I realized I didn’t have any Bowie music on any of my playlists.  Then it happened.  They began a segment of “All Things Considered” with the opening riffs…the soaring chords of  “Let’s Dance”.

I didn’t dance.  I pulled over onto the shoulder and wept.  I wept for the lost talent, the lost beauty, the lost art…and another lost member of my generation’s music.

But, I saw sights of jaw-dropping beauty.  Rainbows that lasted over an hour.  Rock colors I never knew existed.  Canyons and valleys and washes and rivers, many that are famous and many that are unnamed.  Actually, I think nearly everything in the world has a name, I just didn’t have the right map.

When you travel, always have the right map.  It doesn’t have to be of any place you’re planning on visiting, but it’s good to have the map anyway.

There are maps of the wild and empty deserts of Arizona and California.  And, there are maps that exist only inside one’s mind.  These are usually the most interesting ones to use as guides.  Landscapes, towns, roads, Interstates, trails and horse paths can change with a sudden rainstorm.

But, the map that has your heart and soul and restless spirit as the compass rose…those are the maps to carry.

You can’t buy them on Amazon.  You were born with them deep in your chromosomes.

FinalPicAtEndOfTrip

The Warm Moon, Our Sixth Moon…The Hidden Moon

image

I waited until after midnight to go out of our r-pod to look up at the sixth full moon of our trip.  My weather app was correct, there would be a thick cloud cover tonight.

And there was.  For me, this was a first.  Since October, we had been favored by a clear sky.  The western sky is usually cloudless.

Last nights moon is known as the “warm moon.”  We just welcomed spring a few days ago.  There is warmth in the air but, for me, a certain sadness covers my thoughts.  Soon, we will be unpacking the RV and most likely prepare it for sale.  Our life, our days that have been unfolding with a new landscape with each new highway and each new town will now be as predictable as…the rising of the next full moon.

That will be on April 22.

We’ll be home and I will be watching, waiting for the Pink Moon.

Where will you be?

A Short Walk Up Boot Hill

 

SoiledDove1

[An unknown prostitute of Dodge City]

My reason for being on the road for so long has a great deal to do with my growing dislike of the winters of the North Country.  It also enables me to wander and explore my interests.  I love history, I am attracted to stories of the pioneer days, the cattle drives, the lives of the Native Americans and white settlers on the prairie, the exploration, the hardships and the state of life, love and death in the Old West.

I’m also fascinated with the human stories of individuals that never made the popular history books…those who came into this country with hopes and dreams and expectations.  The lives of people who live on the edges of society are compelling to me because they are so human, and therefore, so flawed and full of missteps and errors and simple bad luck.  Clearly, the life of a woman in these cattle towns is the stuff of myths and stories, real and fictional, romanticized and ugly, and sad.

Those interests brought me to Dodge City, Kansas, a legendary city that sits on the famous Santa Fe Trail.  The 1870’s were a time of cattle drives, lawlessness and violence.  The law was not a strong presence in the dirt streets or along the boardwalks.  This is the time of the development of the myths about Dodge as we know them today through films and TV shows.

That’s what took me to the Boot Hill Museum on Wyatt Earp Boulevard.  I paid my $9.00 entrance fee and found the path to the “real” Boot Hill cemetery.

I had done my homework.  I knew who I was looking for.  I wanted to lay a single flower on the graves of the three “soiled doves” who were reputed to be buried among the gamblers, killers, buffalo hunters and gamblers.

I felt like a dusty cowboy striding into the Long Branch and asking for the affections of one of the “girls upstairs”.  Instead, I was climbing a small rise, a block from the Boulevard, to find myself inside a sparse burying-ground, fenced in to hide the view from the traffic on the street.

It took a little searching.  Few of the original markers remained.

I was looking for Dora Hand.  She was the lover of the mayor of Dodge.  She was also the woman who was fancied by one “Spike” Kenedy, a cowboy.  To teach the mayor a lesson (and to ‘free’ Dora from the clutches of the old guy), this fellow rode by the house of the mayor and fired a bullet.  The slug went through the mattress of a friend of Dora who was spending the night.  The lead continued into the next room and killed poor Dora instantly.  The mayor was visiting Fort Dodge…he wasn’t even home.  She was the victim of a ride-by shooting…perhaps the first.  She died on October 4, 1878.

I was looking for Alice Chambers.  The cause of death?  I never learned that.  I don’t know what brought her to her death-bed where she uttered her last words: “Circumstances led me to this end” on May 5, 1878.

I was looking for Lizzie Palmer.  To me, hers is the saddest tale.  Apparently she loved Bat Masterson.  So did another dance hall girl.  There was a bar-room brawl.  Lizzie died a few days later from an infection that set in after she was cut on the head.  Her death date is unknown.  What is known is that Reverend Ormond Wright spoke the blessed words at her burial.  He was a second choice.  The first preacher who was approached, refused to offer his prayers for her soul.

So much for the mercy of the good Christian man of the cloth.

I bent over and placed a small wildflower at each of the graves.  At Lizzie’s marker, I ran my finger over my shoes and was amazed at the amount of dust that had collected on the tan leather.

But, it got me to reflecting on dust.  These unfortunate women, in this profession by reasons unknown to me, were by now, dust.

Maybe the dry earth and the shallow grave still holds the thin and fragile bones of these three “tainted ladies”, these “soiled doves”, these lost and lonely souls.

SoiledDove2

[Another unknown Dodge City prostitute]

[Images are mine.  I took the photos of posters on the wall in the Boot Hill Museum]