For Me? It Was a Hard Days Night

Lennon

[Source: Google search.]

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

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

Sometime in mid-afternoon something in the air changed.

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

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

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

I stared at him and waited.

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

I noticed the couple’s hands tightened their grip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jeff,” I said, “come here quick!”

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

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

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

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

newspaper

[Source: Google search.]

 

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Bob Takes A Bow

[Source: Google search.]

“I’ve got nothing more to live up to.”

–Dylan

This is not going to be the usual Bob Dylan fan blog. I’ve something special to relate. More on that later.

I’m sitting in what is usually the warmest room in our home, the dining room. It must be the two sets of floorboard heaters if I were asked why I’m not wearing a fleece vest while I try to put together this post. The fact that my hands are as dry as the sands of the Kalahari doesn’t make typing very easy, but if I load up on hand lotion, the keyboard can get pretty gummy, if you get my drift.

When I finish this, I’m heading downstairs to the ‘family room’ where the wood stove is located. No TV tonight. Just a time of quiet (well, maybe I’ll take Alexa with me) reading and flame watching. It’s expected to fall to 8 F later but I’ll be prepared. Unlike six nights ago when I sat in Loge 4, Row D, Seat 34 of the Beacon Theater in New York City.

I was there for what is likely my twentieth Bob Dylan concert. Most of my readers already know that I am a consummate Dylan fan. I don’t follow him around like a few friends did with the Grateful Dead…traveling from city to city. No. I catch him when he performs at a location near me.

The very best concert of his that I have ever seen was back in the day (1973 or 1974) when he was touring with The Band. They played Nassau Coliseum. It was my first big-time rock concert. He commanded the stage.

Now a days, however, he can’t fill arenas so he plays smaller venues. The Beacon Theater is a beautiful space and with a little help with a pair of opera glasses, you can see his expressions…which are few.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Bob has been criticised for his ‘lack of attention to his audience’. It’s all true. He says nothing to the crowd, only a few words to his band and then leaves to roaring applause. Some fans are annoyed by this and feel slighted. I don’t. I feel that Dylan has more than given of himself. I mean, how much energy does it take to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” for 9,700 times? I couldn’t do it.

But at the end of the show on November 29, six nights ago, he did something I had not witnessed in decades. After his last encore, before leaving the stage…Dylan stood before his band and bowed to the audience.

He’s no Mick Jagger or Tony Bennett, but considering my love for his poetry, music and his constant presence on the road (The Never Ending Tour), I’m pleased with small gestures.

Dylan doesn’t need the spotlight.

Now I have to go and start a fire.

[Photo is mine.]

 

Autumn And Gravestones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, time heals those wounds…they say.

My Father’s Books

The 1950’s & 1960’s

On Sunday nights, in the house at 420 Front Street in Owego, NY, there was usually an empty chair in our living room. My mother and three older brothers would gather around an oversized wooden console that housed a Black & White TV. The Ed Sullivan Show was about to come on the air. The diagonal screen measurement was probably about 20″, but I wouldn’t swear by that. Some memories dim with time…others stay fresh. It’s odd though. I sat and stared at this TV for years and couldn’t tell you what color the cabinet was.

But, the empty chair? Who was missing?

It was my father. Only on rare occasions did he join us for a TV show ( think he was present when Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan Show). So where was he? The answer was simple. He was upstairs. He was reading. This was not just a Sunday night activity for him…he was always upstairs (in whatever bedroom he had chosen that year for his ‘study’)…reading.

Our house was full of books. Upstairs and down, there were bookcases lined with a wide assortment of fiction and non-fiction. And almost all of it belonged to my father.

Today

We have a wonderful barrister bookcase that I brought from my family home after it was sold in 2005. It has glass windows. One sleepless night a few weeks ago, I went on the prowl for something to read. I decided to look into the bookcase at the books that we brought from my father’s library. Now I began to understand what his favorite reads were…back in the days while the rest of the family watched TV and he would retire to his comfy chair in one of the upstairs bedrooms. I began to piece together his changing tastes in literature. I determined that the oldest books dated to the 1940’s. (He bought 420 Front St. in 1945). I discovered a veritable treasure trove of pulp crime novels, early one’s written by Raymond Carver and John Dickinson Carr. There was Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene. It was next to Double Indemnity by James Cain. There were scores of these fine old pulps (even more in our bookcase downstairs).

I pulled out a copy of 5 Murderers by Raymond Chandler. I checked out the back cover. The book cost an astounding twenty-five cents! The highest price I saw on these books was fifty cents. Now, when I lived in Manhattan in the 1990’s, I used to see book vendors on the sidewalk in front of Zabar’s on Broadway. They would sell these very pulps, sealed nicely in a zip-lock baggie, for $5.00 or more. Quick math calculation: that’s a 2,000% increase. I am sitting on a goldmine!

I moved to hardcovers. There was E.M. Forester, Jack London, Robert Lewis Stevenson and so many more. Most of these were inexpensive book club editions, many had notices on the back cover to purchase war bonds.

In the upper right corner of the bookcase was a small collection of my own Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books that gave me so much joy in my pre-teen years

As my father aged, his taste in books changed. I used to see him sitting next to a stack of six or seven novels from the new releases section of the Coburn Free Library. The titles of these books, I can not recall, but I remember thinking at the time (1960’s) that this is what adults read. I wonder who the authors were. This was the days before Stephen King and John Grisham. I don’t think he’d like that genre.

My father passed away before I published my own novel. He never got to see his son’s modest success, but I’m sure he’d be proud. He tried to write a family history, but never got very far. He admitted that writing a long piece was a task beyond him.

But he sure could devour the writer’s he loved.

And he passed down his love of reading and books to all of his sons. He never pushed anything. He taught by example. I have done the same for my children. Erin and Brian are both avid readers. (Brian has been working on The Guns of August for a few years now. He has it on his Kindle. He told me once that there are about 900+ pages using the normal font. When he changes the font to a larger size, he is suddenly facing a 13,000 page book about the origins of WWI).

An indelible memory, a central, strong and clear memory of my dad is of him sitting and reading…until it was his bedtime.

He passed away at the age of 90. I’m sure he was reading when he was five or six. That’s 85 years of books. A lot of books, a lot of words and a lot of worlds to explore…for anyone.

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.