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?

A Fair Swap: The Excursionist I

On Friday, February 1, Mariam and I will be exchanging this:

[The Hudson River on January 26, 2018]

for this:

[The Yorkshire Dales, England]

It’s a pretty fine change of scenery if I do say so myself.

Once upon a time, back in the day, I loved winter.  How could one not love winter…when you’re twelve years old and you’re skating on the Brick Pond in Owego, NY?  I had a toboggan, a sled and the ability to make a superb snow person.  I owned a pair of old snowshoes with leather hide webbing.  An Eddie Bauer Arctic Parka hung in my closet…and still does.  I camped out in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks when it was -28℉.  My ice skates, black and weathered, hung on the wall leading to our attic.  Every time I would pass them, on a stifling day in August, I would think of the coming winter and the frozen pond only a few hundred feet from my front door.

I couldn’t wait.

Then in 1974, a personal tragedy visited me while hiking in the Adirondacks and winter became a little darker in my heart.  I no longer saw the snow as pristine and pure and calming as I had for almost two decades of my life.

The years went by.  I woke up one morning and looking into the mirror, I saw a middle-aged man looking back at me.  The salt & pepper hair had gone mostly gray.  My back hurts after shoveling.  My skates no longer fit.  my bones ache and my muscles get sore when I am forced out of our house to deal with a two-foot snowfall.  Winter no longer holds a spell over me.  I layer up with wool and fleece because I always feel chilled.  I love to watch the snow fall slowly onto the lake near our house.  I love to walk in the moonlight, feeling the peculiar crunch of the ground on cold nights.  But where I’d really rather be is sitting near our wood stove and reading a Nordic Noir novel.

In the mid-1980’s, I spent a year in Dorset, England.  It changed my life.  Footpaths and pubs abound in the chalky hills of Thomas Hardy country.  The mossy gravestones surround the mossy churches.  And, the green is breathtaking.  England may not have the twenty-eight shades of green that cover my beloved Ireland, but it’s a close second.  Sometimes, at our home in the Adirondacks, I will gaze out of the large window that faces Rainbow Lake and see a monochromatic world.  My eyes strain for some color.  A last brown leaf on a dormant maple or even a patch of blue sky beyond the leaden skies.  But no, it’s a world of white and gray.  I yearn for a dandelion or a trillium…anything with color.

So, we’re off to spend the remainder of the winter in Dorset, hosted by friends I met in the 1980’s.  We plan on doing a lot of walking, and I will carry an L.L Bean pole to lean on if my back begins to trouble me.

I guarantee that there will be a stone wall to sit on and rest.  There will be a quiet pew in a forgotten little church in a out-of-the-way village where I can write in my journal.

Yes, I will sit in that quiet pew and think about trading white for green, mild days for thumb-numbing cold mornings and ice for muddy footpaths.

And, I shall have some peace there…without fleece, without down and without cares.

 

The Ring

My left hand is ringless. The wedding band lies on a tray on the dresser in our bedroom, along with assorted jewelry.  Is this the sign of a marriage gone south?  Hardly.  The only thing that would be going south right now is my wife and I.  Because outside the wind howls and the temperature is dropping like the broken seeds of the sunflower mixture in our bird feeder.  Mariam reports from the kitchen that it is currently 14.2℉.  By 2:00 am, when I make my first trip to the bathroom (it’s a prostate thing), it’ll be -6℉.  It’ll bottom out at -12℉ in the wee hours.

So, what’s the deal with the ring?  In truth, I’m losing weight and a few weeks ago I tested the ring by lightly shaking my hand on the bed cover.  It slipped off.  I had a little clamp thing on it to keep is snug and safe on my ring finger but it broke.  For now it will rest, in security, on our dresser.

I have rarely taken it off in our 25+ years of marriage.  Why should I?  If I were out to ‘get lucky’ at the local pub…and I slid it off my finger, it would leave a white, unweathered ‘ring’ on the finger in question.  That would a dead give away for any twenty-something who had mistaken me for George Clooney (refer to my Facebook profile photo).

And I would never do such a thing anyway.  I can barely comprehend life without her.  She gets frustrated on her computer, but she’ll sit in my office for hours and we will read aloud the drafts of a novel I would be working on.  (A novel that will sell approximately 43 copies.)  Mariam will drop anything to help me with something that is beyond my ability.  She saved my life by locating the best hematologist in New York City, in 2003 when I was diagnosed with a rare leukemia.  She slept on a cot while I went through ten days of chemo.  She stayed on the phone (while she was working at Mount Sinai) for hours until we secured tickets to see the Rolling Stones.  She never denies my need to see Bob Dylan whenever he plays near us.  She lets me roam at will in a Barnes & Nobel…and even tells me which credit card to use.

[Mariam in 2017]

Twenty-two years ago, when I turned fifty, she asked me what I wanted.  I humbly suggested a 28″ sailboat or a 1952 MG TD (with wire wheels).  That’s when I think she started secretly stashing away money for one or the other.

We’ve traveled a great deal, especially since she finally retired after over fifty years in health care.  We’ve been to Paris, London, Belgium, Alaska, Istanbul, Ireland, Germany and countless other places.  And, we’re about to spend the winter in England and returning home aboard the Queen Mary 2., for the second time.

She is my wife and my best (and sometimes I feel my only) friend.

So, why this post?  Why now?  It’s not her birthday nor our anniversary.  It’s not Mother’s Day.  It’s just another day I wake next to my wife and feel that I could write a simple blog to brighten her day.  In the middle of a snowy and cold winter, she needs a lift.

After she reads this (which she will proof) I’m counting on her being a tiny bit happier.  So, now is the time to quietly mention the sailboat and the MG.

[In Istanbul. Circa: late 1990’s]

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]

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.]

 

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.]