Fathers and Coffee

One more cup of coffee before I go…

                               –Bob Dylan

[My photo]

This gray, almost monochromatic morning, I lounged in bed reading yesterday’s New York Times.  It’s something we did every weekend for years while we lived in Manhattan.  The fact that’s its Monday is a moot point.  When you’re retired, everyday is like a Sunday.  This may, however, be due to the fact that all the days seem to drift together and half the time I’m never totally sure what day it is.

But, to clear away any misgivings, I can state that it is Monday, November 6…and it’s gloomy outside, like a Tim Burton take on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But, I digress.

I was sipping my coffee, once steaming and now, just below the stage of lukewarm.  It tastes just like it sounds, lukewarm coffee, barely potable.  The odd thing is that if I drop in two ice cubes and wait three minutes, it’s transformed into Iced Coffee!  And, it’ll be a cold day in Yuma before I’ll walk away from a Starbucks Cold Brew.

So, as I sipped the cooling mug, I began to recollect on things my father said to me when I was growing up in the 1950’s.  I’m sure he was not alone in using phrases like:

“If I wanted a fool to do this, I would have done it myself.”

“Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Post-war idioms.

I was strictly a tea drinker well into my teens.  It was mostly a camping thing.  I never had a Lipton before scurrying off to elementary school.  In fact, I was never really that big on caffeine ever, even now.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a mug of Irish Breakfast tea now and then.

I’m recalling an incident that occurred when I was about fifteen.  My family was sitting at a diner and the waitress asked about drinks.  I asked for my first cup of coffee.  My father looked aghast at me.  He shifted his position on the vinyl seat of the booth.  When the server left, he leaned over to me and actually said:

“You know, it’ll stunt your growth”.

It was a cliché that every parent used to threaten their kids about; coffee, tobacco and so many other vices.

I lay in bed and chuckled to myself.  How antiquated, how naive his threats seem to me now.  Then the smile left my face and I felt an overwhelming sadness wash over me.

I thought of my own son and how, because of a divorce, I did not take part in his life when he had his first coffee.  The sadness deepened.  I had missed so many of the years when I, as his father, should have been by his side.

My father’s remark came back to me with a new kind of understanding.  I really don’t believe he truly thought that my first cup of coffee was going to stunt my growth.  I think he was blindsided by my request.  And, most importantly, I think he was terrified.  In a certain way, that first coffee was a sort of rite of passage…something he knew deep within and something he dreaded with great sorrow.

He was losing his son, his youngest son to the terrors of a fast approaching place called adulthood.  His comment was the only thing he could think of to slow down the separation that was to come.  He wanted to hold on to my childhood as long as he could, because after that, there’s no going back, no reversal in time and no going home again.

The separation of father and son.

When my umbilical cord was cut sometime during the evening of May 31, 1947, I was separated physically from my mother.  No such action happens between father and son…until the son asks for his first cup of coffee.

I cling to my son these days.  I kiss his cheek when I see him.  I tell him how much I love him.  I wish I had to lean over, sore back or not, to pick him up.  I wish I had to walk at a tilt while I held his little hand in mine.  I wish he had to lift his head upward to look at me and to extend his arms, asking to be picked up and carried.

Everyday, I can feel the fear my father felt that afternoon, decades ago, when I said yes to a cup of coffee.

[Photo credit: Keith Daniel, Restitutio. Google search.]

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On Front Street At The End Of October

Different times…different places…different memories…

[Photo source: Google search.]

I should mention that, as a child, one of my favorite things to do this time of year was to kick a pile of leaves along a stone sidewalk.

It’s gloomy, rainy and windy here in the North Country.  It rained hard before dawn this morning so nearly all the foliage is now on the ground.  If the wind continues, the little color that is left will leave the deciduous trees naked in a few days.  But, surprisingly, the outside temperature is in the mid-sixties, so it’s hard to think of this being October 8, only a few weeks before my favorite time of year, Halloween! But, we live in a rather isolated location, so there will be no trick-or-treat for us.  There never has been any since we moved here in 2011.

This is not like the place where I grew up, Owego, NY.  It’s about six hours downstate and it probably rained there as well last night.  But, in the vast store of my childhood memories, I’m sure there were wet and dark days in my home town when I was young.  However, once the weather front went through, the air would turn crisp and sometimes there would be frost on grassy lawns, and on the pumpkins, carved and candle-lit, that sat on the porches and front steps like sentinels…or warnings.  The strange truck with the giant vacuum hose had already made its slow way along the curbside to suck up the leaves that were raked in piles.  We were still allowed to burn leaves in those days so the air was rich with the scent of smoldering oak and maple and elm leaves from someones back yard fire pile. Trick-or-treating down Front and Main Streets, as well as John, Ross and Paige Streets was a joyful time of year for me.

My happiest Halloween’s were when I would take my daughter, Erin (in the mid to late 1970’s) and later, my son, Brian (in the early 1990’s) down those fearful streets. Those were when the sidewalks would be crowded with families and the houses would be lit up with orange light and strange candles and we could see our breath in the chilly air.

[My daughter, Erin.  Getting ready for a trip to Owego.]

[My son, Brian…as Fu Manchu.]

After a lifetime of growing up on Front Street, this was my chance to peek inside the older and larger houses…all the way to the business district.

Our first stop was the Sparks’ house next to ours.  Then it was across the street to the old Loring house and then back across the street to walk past the only ‘haunted’ house in my neighborhood, the very old Taylor mansion with the floor to ceiling windows and mansard roof.  We’d be sure to stop at Dr. Amouk’s house (pardon the spelling).  He usually had the best candy which was ironic because he was a dentist.

My children usually made a ‘pretty good haul’ on those nights.  And, it was a joy to view their excitement from an adults perspective.

I remember one Halloween in particular.  My wife and I were taking my son Brian on the rounds.  We got to a house that was almost directly across the street from my old elementary school, St. Patrick’s.  There were corn shocks and fake cobwebs all over the large porch.  Then my son spotted a pair of feet sticking out of a box next to the front door.  He hesitated.  We pushed the door bell.  A woman dressed like a vampire came to answer.  She was holding a box of candy.  But Brian had already made a retreat to the sidewalk.  He was having no part of this woman’s fun that night.

Remembering how my kids enjoyed those walks forces me to remember the times when my friends and I owned those after dark hours while we hid behind the Frankenstein masks or space-suits; the hours when you never knew who would open a door or what monster might cross you path.  So many leaves were scattered on the slate sidewalks that one simply had to kick at them.  As children, we knew the magic of that season would last only a few days.

Now, we can still kick leaves along our road…but it’s not the same as it was.  Nothing will ever be the same as those charmed nights of a spooky holiday when you’re seven or eight…or even fifteen, when your goal is not an apple or twenty M & M’s, but to steal a kiss behind the large elms that once lined Front Street.

To steal that kiss was a treat that couldn’t be bought in any candy store.

 

 

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

I Heard The Secrets Of The Grackle’s Song

grackle

[Image: Google search]

A short time ago, perhaps a week, maybe more, I spent a few days in Austin, Texas.  We were visiting with a gentleman, William, that I had met during a writers workshop in Westport, New York in October, 2012.  He has been a good friend and faithful follower of my blogs since I began posting them.

Austin.  The home of the long-running pbs music show, Austin City Limits, the Skylark Lounge, a great blues club, a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan that stands on the banks of the Colorado River (not the Colorado River).  Arguably the most famous dance hall in Texas, The Broken Spoke, is in Austin.  It’s where I “learned” to do the Texas 2-step and when my bones and legs couldn’t keep time with the music, I could sit and sip a Lone Star beer and watch the real dudes and drug-store cowboy’s do the dance the way it should be done.  Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played this city, while virtually inventing Texas Swing music.  A statue of Willie Nelson stands outside the theater where Austin City Limits is recorded.

Austin.  A town where the hills glow violet in the setting sun.  A vermillion hue in the afternoon sky.  And, in that afternoon sky are thousands of birds.  The Grackles of Austin.

The Grackle is considered by many to be a disease-carrying bird that is a genuine pest.  Cannons have been used to keep them from clustering in various city parks.  On my first afternoon, a late afternoon, when the sky had begun to redden, I saw black objects clinging to the power lines near the exit ramp of I-35.  I could make out that they were birds…but the numbers were staggering.  I can say one thing straight away: I have never seen such flocks of these starling-like, black-hued avians roosting on power lines in my life.  When they took flight from the trees, shrubs and high wires, they would fill the air and darken the sky.  When they moved, when they were on the wing, they moved as one.  I described this sudden turn of direction in my first novel, Standing Stone, as “one shared soul.”

GracklesInWaco

[The swarming Grackles in Waco, Texas. Image: Google search]

These are birds of legend.  To a person unfamiliar with large flocks of crow-like creatures, these looked like something that was left on the cutting-room floor after Alfred Hitchcock decided he had gone too far.

Birds of Legend?

I was familiar with the real birds of legend.  The Phoenix, rising from the ashes.  The Ibis of Ancient Egypt.  The Dove of Noah.  The Eagle of American power and might.

But, the Grackle?  What legend?  What was it about this Raven-like bird that inspired such mystery and admiration…and contempt?

It seems that in the ancient days, back in the time when even dust was old, the Grackle did not make a sound…it had no call.  It was mute.  But, birds need a song to sing…to communicate a message of warning, spread the word about where water could be found…or to call to one another, to seek a mate…to make a nest…to pass on a new generation of life.  For nothing lives forever…

The Legend begins:

In Mexico, the bird were called zantes.  In Pre-Columbian times, it has been said, the mute birds began to seek a voice. They found a Sea Turtle and the zantes stole their voice from him.  They stole the archaic song of the Sea Turtle.  That was the mystical Song of the Seven Passions.  They now had their voice…their song.

800px-Zanate-Sea_turtle_artifact_icon

[Image: Google search]

For eons, they have sung this most sacred of songs.  But, to the modern ear, it sounds like a common cackle.  The sound and the name stuck…hence, the Grackle.

Annoying and obtrusive to most people these days, I found myself alone in a quiet park one afternoon.  I listened to the cackling.  I listened for the song.  It began to clarify in my head.  I could make out intonation, nuance, emotion and meaning.

I began to hear the Seven Songs of Passion.

I heard LOVE…and I thought of my childhood.  My mother, my father, my brothers, my elders, my girlfriend, my lovers, my wife.  I thought of those I never knew… never knew I really loved them, and those who I never realized, once loved me.

I heard HATE…and I thought of killing in the name of God, killing those who are different, killing those who chose to love those we don’t think they have a right to love.  I thought of those killed by others who believe in another God than the One of our birth.  I thought of the death of the spirit in a child by withholding love, by hurting their tiny hearts and bodies.  I thought of those who hate because…they hate.

I heard FEAR…and I thought of a lonely snow-covered trail in the Northern Forest and the fear that I was losing a dear friend.  I recalled a phone call, and then another, followed by yet another, telling me that a parent or sibling was near death.  I thought of the fear that a woman I loved would simply walk out the door.  I thought of the fear of abandonment and the fear of being unloved.  I thought of the fear of dying, the fear of pain, the fear of being afraid.

I heard COURAGE…and I thought of the brave who have died for their beliefs, not for a flag or a symbol, but for  human dignity and the freedom from being a slave of any kind.

I heard JOY…and I thought of how I felt when my children were born.  How I love and respect my daughter, Erin and how she and her husband, Bob are raising my grandson, Elias, to be an inquisitive and curious and kind child.  I thought of how much fun I have when I sit and have a talk with my son, Brian, who is smart, witty and has the heart as big as Texas (with New Mexico and a good deal of Utah thrown in).

I heard ANGER…and I thought of the misspoken words between a married couple, between a child and a parent, between lovers, between nations, between religions, with oneself for not being able to accomplish something creative and meaningful, lasting and full of beauty.

I heard SADNESS…and I feel a billion tears from a million people crying, at a graveside for the soul of someone they will never see or touch again, at a wedding when a father says farewell to a daughter or a son, in an office when a husband or wife hears of the loss of a spouse or child in a misbegotten war, in the heart of a student when the teacher implies he or she can’t do something, in the doorway of a family home when a parent watches their child walk away into the life of adulthood, never to be a child again.  The sadness of those losses are overwhelming.

MourningFigure

[Source: Pinterest]

I heard all these passions from the beak of that dark bird, the Grackle.  I was overwhelmed by this ability to hear these things.  It’s too much for one person to handle.  If more people just stopped and listened to the zantes, perhaps the burden would be spread out…and lighten the load for the few who stop to listen, not just to this one bird of Austin, but to all life.

WatercolorTears

[Image: Google Search]

 

 

Dark Roads And Distant Lights

NoirFloridaRoad

So much of Florida is simply and without question, beautiful.  The beaches come to mind.  The wetlands of the Everglades are near the top of the list.  The seemingly endless forests of the Ocala National Forest are a reminder of what Florida once looked like before Disney, Developers and Big Sugar got their hands on so much of the natural and unique beauty.

But, there’s a dark side as well.  This witching hour come at dusk, when the shadows lengthen and the details of the roadside becomes dim and indistinct.

I drove north, through The Villages, where we visited a friend, Nancy, who grew up a few blocks from where I did in Owego, NY.  I drove north, on roads that paralleled I-75.  We grazed Ocala.  We drove toward an RV park in Fort McCoy, near the middle of the state.

This was not Sanibel or Captiva Island.  This was a strange and unfamiliar country that got slightly more menacing as we sought our campground.

The roadsides lost a familiar clarity.  The houses looked a bit more run-down, some had sad Christmas lights still blinking in their yards.  Every mile or two, a gate at the head of a driveway, or a house, flew the Confederate flag.

I wanted to get settled in our site.  I wanted to collapse on the bed and play a few Scrabble games.  I wanted to nibble on a few vegetables and a cracker or two with a slice or two of Irish Cheddar.

Instead we drove along what seemed to be an endless road.  Our GPS was giving us contradictory commands.  My own confidence at map-reading began to falter.  Were we lost?  Did we miss a turn?

What about gas?  I hadn’t seen a station in what seemed like hours.  When you’re in an unfamiliar landscape, time can stretch and become distorted.

We finally located our RV park.  I don’t like to hear Interstate traffic when we camp…that would most definitely NOT be the case here.  There was no traffic noise at all.

A security guard was supposed to meet us at the gate-house and check us in.  There was no one there.  We followed the directions to check ourselves in.

We were listed for Site #50.  I was distracted by another RV in the exit lane.  The guy seemed upset:

“They knew we had to leave early.  I’m locked in!”

Indeed, there was a cable across the exit drive.  I went out to help him.  His RV was larger than mine.  He was traveling with a blonde that I could barely see through the smoked glass of the passenger side.  I helped him unhook the cable and I pulled the orange traffic cone to one side.  He drove off.

Now, when I hear someone express interest in leaving “early” I think that they mean 6:30 am.  But, it was 7:45 pm!

Why was this guy leaving at this hour?  Where was he going?  Where was he going to spend the night, which had already started?

“Is there something going on here?” I asked myself.

The security guard drove up.  I told him we were heading to Site #50, but I couldn’t make out anything more than a small dirt road.

“I need some direction to #50,” I said.

“Oh, you won’t like #50,” he said.  “There a ditch in the middle of it.  Take #22.  You’ll like it better.”

We took Site #22 and we did like it.

A few campers had fires.  People laughed in the darkness.  I settled in and felt hungry only for a few veggies and a piece of cheese.  I made a few plays on Scrabble but found the WiFi signal weak and uneven.  I gave up.  Mariam wanted a bottle of cold water, so I slipped on my shoes and went to the ice cooler in the car.  The moon, full only a few days ago (on Christmas Night), was Waning Gibbous.  Orion was bright and directly over my head.  It was a cool and pleasant night

I stood in the large mown yard and looked at the moon.  In a few hours it would be December 31.  I thought of my days in Florida, my sailing, my new friends and my new experiences.

I thought about my family.  Brian in New York City, Erin, in Washington State.  My grandson on Erin’s knee reaching for his dad, Bob.  I thought of my faithful readers of this blog.

And, as lonely as I feel at this moment, here in the middle of somewhere in Central Florida, that I wanted to wish everyone a Happy New Year.

So, Happy New Year.  I love y’all.

SpanishMossTree

Coal For Christmas

Paul Egan #2 copy 2

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sixty-eighth year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer.  It is a time to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.  It’s time for a Christmas story.  It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good, or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.  He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the ten or so feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was half filled with chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  After glancing at each other once, they looked up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “if anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

 

Traveling South/Going Native: Thoughts At 34.41° North Latitude

CottonField

South n 1 : The compass direction directly opposite to the north. 2 : The direction to the right of one facing east.

Realistically, however, south is more than one of the cardinal points on a compass.  It is also a state of mind.  When most Americans think of the south, many cultural references come to mind.  The Civil War, slavery, plantations, civil rights, voting rights, hillbillies, the KKK, lynchings, poverty, cotton, levees and even dirt that is red.  There are plenty of stereotypes to make anyone happy.  If you turn this mental picture around, something quite different should come to mind.  It’s the land of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty,  heart-breaking blues, early jazz, proud and beautiful people of color, perfect swamps, Spanish Moss, Jack Daniels and sometimes a soft gentility that is lacking on the hot pavements of East New York in Brooklyn.

Indeed, the south has many faces, many histories and many ways of life.

I’m camped now, just a few miles across the state line of South Carolina.  I’ve crossed bridges over waterways with such names as the Little Pee Dee River.  I’ve seen enough Kudzu choking the trees along I-95 to know for certain that I’ve entered a world unlike my hometown or my present home of Rainbow Lake, NY.

As I drive, I think dark and ironic thoughts.  If it were a mere 152 years ago, I would be marching with a unit of New York Volunteers along a strip of dust or a ribbon of mud–on my way to a battlefield.  I would be looking for someone  to kill–some poor barefoot kid, maybe wearing gray, maybe wearing his father’s shirt, probably hungry, likely thirsty–but proud of who he his and what he thinks is a noble cause.  He will probably die in a day or two.  He will probably never hear the sound that a small ball of lead makes in those moments before it enters his chest.  He probably won’t die for a few long and sad minutes.  He’ll have time to think of his mother, his girl, his wife, his brother, his son, his father–and he may even have enough seconds to beg God to forgive him and to make a plea to God to bestow a blessing on Robert E. Lee.

The irony?  The dead rebel from 1862, may have had a child.  His great, great, great, great grandson probably just sold me a bottle of water at the Kwik Stop Sunoco station at Exit 78.  Another bit of irony?  I can’t locate a Starbucks without an app on my laptop.

You don’t experience the real south along the Interstate corridor.  I would have to drive 150 miles to the west–into the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, into the dark hollows, into the woods beyond the towns to find the mountaineers who make the moonshine, clog dance on the bare plank porches, strum the banjo or sing a song that sounds as though it was sung yesterday in Galway, Ireland.  Or, I would have to drive south from Memphis, down Highway 61, and through the Delta Country to Vicksburg, past dusty fields and old sharecroppers shacks to find a certain cross-roads.  That legendary intersection of two dirt traces where Robert Johnson bartered his soul to Satan in exchange for the ability to play the ultimate delta blues guitar, is somewhere around those parts.

Traditionally the people of the backwoods had little traffic with store-bought goods.  They made do with what they had.  They distilled the grain, they strung their own fiddles and they made their own soap.

I’m in the south now.  I need to go native.  I need to begin thinking differently than I did two weeks ago.  I need…

But, wait.  I have no clue about how to distill grain alcohol.  I can’t whittle.  I can’t play any instrument or craft any art, folk or otherwise.

I bought a brown and polished stone to wear around my neck.  I picked some cotton, but I can’t pull it apart and make a shirt.

b:wcottonhand

I am a stranger in a strange land.  I’m a Yankee and not a true southerner.  I was not born of this strange soil and I will never acclimatize myself to the unforgiving heat and humidity.

I am an alien here.  I’m only passing through.

My restless nature has taken me this far, but I’m not anywhere close to beginning my return trip.  My body will find a place to heal.  I know where that place is located.  It sits at the edge of the Mojave Desert, about 3,000 miles away.

It’s said to be a ghost town now.  I won’t accept that.  But, before I soak in the hot healing springs, I’ll have a lot of time to watch the waves along the Gulf Coast, examine the sand grains of countless beaches and stare at the shore birds as they nest.  Maybe they are migrating–from one home to another.  I can relate to those avian cousins of mine.

And, who knows?  Maybe I’ll take a class, learn a craft, write something sublime.

I have plenty of time to go native.

GoingNativeSelfie

[A selfie.  See how I’m “going native”?  Notice the casual open collar of people who “go native”, the single-stone necklace and the silver fountain pen that my son, Brian, got me for my birthday.  It’s for making entries in my “Going Native” journal.  Also, note the scene behind my left shoulder.  They have a pumpkin display that is just out of sight behind me.  But, you can see the satellite dish, the BEWARE OF DOG sign by the red tent and the golf cart.  What you can’t hear is the yipping little dog tied to the tree.  I apologize for not using a “selfie-stick” but most places are asking $19.99 (+ tax) for them.  I’m native enough to take a selfie without one (but, it wasn’t easy).]